Caption: Wildlife photographer Jari Peltomaki learned (the hard way) the monkeys get angry too.
If you spend time reading news comment sections, participating on message boards, and scrolling though social media feeds, you’re more likely to make demonstrably poorer buying decisions. Unplugging is unrealistic. Let’s start with awareness.
Amplifying Rage and Sorrow: The Grand Digital Experiment
I’m picking on the New York Times only because it’s the most obvious offender. I could say the same thing about your local newspaper, most social media, and nearly every message board. Instead of serving as neutral platforms for the free exchange of ideas, they are instead amplifying emotions—and two negative emotions in particular, anger and sadness.
While we’ve seen plenty of research on the impact of negative emotional amplification on our interpersonal relationships, our civil discourse, and our ethical standards, we know far less about the impact on consumer behavior and decision making. That’s what I’m interested in. What I learned might surprise you.
Let’s put the findings in plain terms: When you’re mad, you’re likely to make poor decisions. No surprise there. But when you’re sad, you will likely make better buying decisions.
Why is that important? As a society, we’re running the largest social experiment in human history: What happens to all of us, as consumers, when you add gasoline to society’s long-smoldering resentment, rage, anxiety, and self-doubt? It turns out that some negative emotions are more dangerous to our economic health than others.
The first step to protecting our financial wellbeing as consumers is awareness. Let’s get smarter about the bad stuff.
My Personal Consumer Journey into Anger and Sadness
My dad died on Wednesday, May 26, 2004. I buried him three days later, on my 29th birthday. His final days were a certifiable nightmare. A cocktail of partially effective palliatives could never fully counter the symptoms of Stage 4 bladder cancer, likely a result of the long-term use of benzene and other toxic chemicals required for physical artboard production in the 1960s advertising world. The Mad Men era had its own brand of karma.
It should go without saying late spring 2004 was a deeply sad and reflective time. On the three-hour drive home from the funeral, my wife and I decided to move our children out of our deteriorating neighborhood and resettle in an area that gave them better schools and a better start at life. We couldn’t really afford the move. Housing prices were climbing quickly, putting our already-modest dreams ever more out of reach. We understood the economics, but we weighed the pros and cons, we debated our plans, and we resolved our decision. We put our house on the market that summer.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was an objectively good decision. We stayed in that new home, in that new neighborhood, until both of our children finished high school.
Let’s contrast that with the decision to move into that ill-advised neighborhood in the first place. It was a hot summer afternoon, and I was in a rush. With a baby car seat (and baby, thankfully) in tow, I realized I forgot his diaper bag. Ugh. What parent hasn’t had that experience? I circled the block and drove back into the townhome complex. As it happened, just outside our door was a “visitor” parking space. I saw it, pulled in, and parked. I would be in and out in less than two minutes. As it turns out, two minutes is all it took for the “association police” to notice my car and give it a $20 “ticket”. I mean, fuck. Really?! Yeah, I know. The space was for visitors. Yeah, I know. I read the policy and knew the possible consequences. But that’s not how I thought about it at the time.
I threw the faux-ticket in the back seat, clamped in the car seat, and dialed my cell phone. This wasn’t our first run in with the association, and my wife and I were fed up. We decided then and there to sell and get out. I dialed the name of the realtor who hung a door flyer the week before, and we were listed within two days. We sold the day after. Because the market was so hot, we needed to decide quickly on a new home. We had no idea what we wanted, had done no research, and needed to put in an offer the instant we saw a home we liked. Needless to say, it was not a situation that encouraged thoughtful contemplation.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was an objectively poor decision. We regretted it immediately.
Of course, we made both of those decisions in different housing markets, at different times, and with different life experiences. It’s dangerous to draw deeper conclusions from such different circumstances. However, my wife and I are not real estate experts now, and nor were we then. In both cases, the markets were “hot.” What could have accounted for the extreme difference in how both situations turned out? The only other significant difference was emotional context — sadness in the first case, anger in the second. Sadness led to a good decision. Anger led to a bad decision.
I could have guessed making a decision in a rage would lead to a bad outcome, but would I expect sadness would lead to a good outcome? If I was being honest with myself, I would have guessed that both anger and sadness would lead to bad decisions. They are both “negative” emotions. Counterintuitively, that was not the case.
What happens when you piss off 2.27 billion* people?
*Facebook’s user base, circa Q3 2018
As it turns out, my contrasting experiences making purchase decisions in sadness and anger is not unique. Something deeper was at play. We might expect a positive state of mind would lead to generally better decisions. Also, we might assume neither sadness nor anger is the right time to make any significant decision. But as a society, I’m not sure we’re getting that chance.
Since the birth of social media, online message boards, and media commenting systems, we have been running the largest social experiment in human history on the impact of amplifying negative emotions.
Humans are a social species. “Connecting people” (aka Facebook’s mission) should therefore be an objectively positive goal that leads to measurably positive outcomes. But that’s not what’s happening. Multiple, rigorous, quantitative studies* demonstrate a linear correlation between an increase in the symptoms of depression and increased social media use, both the number of platforms used, and the amount of time spent on them. While it’s unfair to single out Facebook (Twitter, Snapchat and others are included in many studies), Facebook is by far the largest and most pervasive.
*Don’t take my word for it. See the source notes.
Additionally, while correlation does not necessarily equal causation, the study authors point to several possible factors to explain these findings:
- Too much time spent on social networks versus “in person” interactions creates only a surface-level experience of complex human emotional connection, leading to dissatisfaction and frustration
- Social networks (as well as comment systems and message boards) create a distorted view of the lives and opinions of others, leading to negative self-comparisons
- These platforms make it easier (and less risky) to engage in cyber-bullying and other forms of abuse
- The design of digital interaction platforms encourages high frequency of use (duh), leading some people with dopamine-sensitivity to exhibit addictive behavior
Regardless of the causes, the consensus seems clear: The more we use digital interaction platforms, the less happy we are.
Apparently, we are angrier as well.
Some of the best evidence and thinking on the topic come from the brilliant Molly Crocker, PhD and her team at Yale University. Her team examined the amplification of moral outrage (I would just call it rage, or simply anger) on social media and its consequences. In one paper, Crocker asks the obvious question: Is using social media like pouring “gasoline” on the fire of anger that already exists? While she steps back from saying yes (she’s a good scientist), data from Pew Research Center seem to corroborate her hunch.
Caption: As a collective group, we’re pissed off, and it’s getting steadily worse.
What’s not in the data are the subtle differences between sadness (aka short-term depression) and clinical depression (sadness’ long-term cousin) as they relate to consumer decisions. Longer-term depression seems like it would limit the options we might consider as consumers, but that can be both good and bad in consumer behavior. The same could be said for fear, which can contain aspects of both anger and sadness. Sometimes too many choices decrease the quality of our decisions because the abundance leads to overwhelm. Nevertheless, the research on nuanced sadness is inconclusive.
Interactive digital media makes us sadder and angrier than we would be otherwise by designing their algorithms and platforms to amplify emotion by encouraging continuous engagement. What’s worse, not all emotions are created equal. Those same media have a much smaller effect on corresponding positive emotions. Most of the research I’ve highlighted so far focuses on the obvious implications of amplifying only negative emotions: political discord, fostering extremism, and social divisiveness. None of those scholars looked specifically at the impacts of consumer behavior.
That’s what I’m interested in: What are the measurable impacts on negative emotions—specifically sadness and anger—on consumer behavior?
Anger: Bad. Sadness: Not so bad?
Harvard scholars Paul M. Litvak, Jennifer S. Lerner, Larissa Z. Tiedens, and Katherine Shonk summarized the findings of dozens of researchers over the past 30 years (including recent studies conducted in the “digital age”) and found significant risk to the economic health of the rage-filled consumer. (We’ll set aside the well-documented health and relationship impacts.) In one illuminating set of studies, they summarized the findings surrounding two related concepts—anger and sadness—to see what, if any, impact it would have on a consumer’s choices—exactly what I’d like to know. Perhaps surprisingly, sadness often made consumers more careful and focused their attention on better, more thoughtful decisions. Anger, by contrast, led to rash and often self-harmful choices.
That certainly jives with my personal experience selling and buying two homes under those emotional conditions, but why might that be?
In multiple experiments, people associated sadness with situational and complex causes. By contrast, people associated anger with individual people or events, and much simpler causes. Additionally, angry people see lower risk of their actions and higher potential for reward. Surprisingly, that was true whether or not those actions were related explicitly to the cause of the anger. In other words, anger “spilled over”. Sadness did not.
(As in any study (or summary of studies), I look immediately to see if they pass the “college student test.” In other words, did the studies examine only a convenience study of young, college-age adults…or to put it in jaded terms: the sample includes students taking the professor’s classes that semester. While some of the studies cited certainly used young adults, others did not. In all cases, the results hold up. Test passed.)
Let’s quickly summarize:
- Angry consumers engage in riskier buying behaviors
- They will overestimate the chances that “everything will work out”, overestimate their skills in making the decision, and underestimate the chance of making a bad decision
- They will associate the anger with a specific person or company versus seeing the negative situation as stemming from multiple, complex causes; this leads them to act retributively more often
- It won’t matter if that anger originated from some other context; that feeling of anger spreads from its source
- Sad consumers do exhibit the opposite or neutral behaviors
Behavioral economics can translate those behaviors into real dollars and tangible negative costs, but the math isn’t as important as the implications: If you just got cut off in traffic, and you make a rash choice in restaurant, the downside risk is low. If you get cut off in traffic on the way to meet your real estate agent, car dealer, or investment broker, you may want to reschedule.
I can attest to that.
When I was angry, I made a risky choice: I did not adequately research the home market in my area. I didn’t understand the neighborhoods, and I was not prepared with written criteria to evaluate my options. Despite that, I rationalized to myself that “anything was better than what we had” and I had “low downside.” Owning a house was better than owning a townhome without exception. My anger at my homeowner’s association made my hate all associations. In that state of anger, I did not take a more critical look at the real estate agent. (An agent, by the way, who recognized that anger immediately and stoked it during our meetings.)
I experienced almost the opposite situation when I was deeply sad. I studied the housing market. I had written criteria. I interviewed real estate agents. I ran estimates of home values over time, including the very real chance that any home I saw would be overvalued. We ended up picking an adequate, but lower priced, option to minimize the downside risk of the bottom falling out the market (which happened in 2007).
Again, was this simply a matter of me learning from my mistakes? What about other negative emotions: depression, frustration, anxiety, or guilt?
The Harvard team examined dozens of studies, attempting to tease apart those emotions. And while nuanced anger (e.g. frustration or annoyance) could yield slightly different results, the findings seem to be clear: Anger cost consumers.
I’m worried that the dramatic increase in anger, driving by interactive digital media, will not only poison our social and political lives, but also take a meaningful toll on our individual economic wellbeing.
To summarize the basic logic:
- Interactive digital media (social media, message boards, and commenting systems) are making us angrier than we would be otherwise
- There is no corresponding (or balancing) increase in positive emotions that might counteract the effect
- The resulting anger will spill over into other areas of our life, including our buying decisions
- When we make angry decisions, we make poor consumer decisions
- Interactive digital media causes poor consumer decision-making
I recognize that I might be making the same correlation/causation fallacy other researchers are prone to make. But just in case, maybe it’s time to think twice about diving into the comments section of the New York Times before you go shopping?
Actions consumers (and businesses) should take right now.
Let’s translate all of that social science into something practical for the average consumer. And by “average”, I mean “everyone.” I can’t tell you how many times (as an advertising person) I hear that “I’m not swayed by emotions or marketing.” Sorry. You are. I am too. That’s just the truth. The sooner you admit it, the sooner you can make better decisions.
- If you are looking for a new job, don’t do it right after your boss yells at you – give yourself time to calm down
- If you are buying car, don’t do it immediately after you get the bill for repairs – in other words, leave the dealership if that’s where you’re getting the news…it’s no accident dealers invest in service departments
- If you are considering a new home, don’t do it right after your neighbor’s dog poops in your yard (again)
- If you are making an investment decision, don’t sell all your stock in a company that just did something you didn’t like – get the facts, make a plan, let the market overreact
- If you are planning to vote, don’t expose yourself to campaign advertising in the final weeks leading up to election day – all but the most in-the-bag campaigns turn negative in an attempt to stoke anger
Salespeople, marketers, and politicians (manipulators of all stripes) know all of this. They may not have read the research, but if they’re successful at all, they know anger works to drive quick, thoughtless decisions. But here’s the problem, my fellow persuaders: A little bit of situational anger is easy to manipulate, but large-scale, cultural anger is not. In the rage hurricane, all of us are in danger. A rage storm of that size and scale does not discriminate.
If you happen to be one of those professionals who sees the risks of widespread rage, and would like a more humane approach to dealing with anger, try a few of these suggestions:
- Is someone walking into your office, dealership or store because of a bad experience (aka, they’re still angry?), slow them down. Ask them to describe the situation. Help them see more complex causes and effects. Show them the benefits of considering multiple options (not just yours). The Apple and Microsoft Stores are designed for just such a process. Traditional retailer Best Buy just doubled down on its human capital for much the same reason.
- Build delays into the marketing and sales process for complex, risky decisions. Yes, you can keep them engaged, but show them the respect to give them the time necessary to make a better decision. Intuit’s Rocket Mortgage, sadly, might make the problem of poor homebuying decisions worse.
- After the purchase, make it easier for consumers to return their purchase for a full refund. Zappos is a brilliant example.
Those suggestions seem antithetical and ridiculous, don’t they? But consider this: Are you trying to make a “sale” or are you trying to build a “relationship.” Sales are based on triggers. Relationships are built on trust. You build a better, long-term relationship by helping a fellow human make a good decision. They’ll remember you for it. You’ll be unique. You’ll be the go-to resource in the future.
As social media continues to amplify anger, trust-building will become the ultimate sustainable competitive advantage.
In the meantime, you’ve been warned. If you’re mad, lock up the credit card.
About Jason Voiovich
I am a recovering marketing and advertising executive on a mission to rehumanize the relationship between consumers and businesses, between patients and clinicians, and between citizens and organizations. That’s a tall order in a data-driven world. But it’s crucial, and here’s why: As technology advances, it becomes ordinary and expected. As relationships and trust expand, they become stronger and more resilient. Our next great leaps forward are just as likely to come from advances in humanity as they are advances in technology.
If you care about that mission as well, I invite you to connect with me on LinkedIn. If you’re interested in sharing your research, please take the extra step and reach out to me personally at jasonvoiovich (at) gmail (dot) com. For even more, please visit my blog at https://jasontvoiovich.com/ and sign up for my mailing list for original research, book news, & fresh insights.
Thank you! Gracias! 谢谢!
Your fellow human.
Source notes for this article:
You could look to plenty of studies on the topic, but this one is a large, rigorous, quantitative effort from an experienced team at the University of Pittsburg published in 2017.
This is another effort to attempt to tease out the link between social media use and depression. Specifically, it highlights a possible causal factor: social media may alter our perspective of “others”, showing us only the positive aspects, making us feel inadequate by comparison. It’s a balanced look at often-contrary evidence on the subject, and worth a quick read.
I struggle with this one, but I reviewed it and drew from it, even though it features a team of Microsoft corporate researchers. While its approach is interesting, I can’t get away from the possibility that Microsoft might use these findings to poke the eye of rival tech firms.
Published in the Journal of Pediatrics, this study explores the impact on younger kids. The findings are icky.
Follow this link to find links to M. J. Crockett’s work from the the Department of Psychology, at Yale University. Her team is doing some of the most interesting work on anger in our modern, connected society. Most interestingly to me, her work helped convince me that the idea of a digital platform as “neutral” was thoroughly incorrect.
Of all my cited works for this article, this write-up from Time summarizes the research showing that amplified emotion is making us physically ill…not simply psychologically angry.
How Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram shape (and radicalize) our opinions.
Sophia Moskalenko’s work sheds light on how digital media spread information faster, leading (in certain circumstances) to an easier environment for radicalization. In other words, with additional (and more frequent) exposure to fringe and often-angry viewpoints, susceptible people will want to emulate what they see as “common” behaviors…when those extreme views are anything but.
Social media really is angrier than it used to be. This chart proves it.
This is interesting Pew data, but I doubt any legitimate scientist would use the word “prove” in this context. And Pew doesn’t. I’d recommend reading Pew’s original release, even if it’s a longer read:
I wish online publications would encourage a bit more nuance, but then again, “prove” gets clicks.