In Brief

If five used Madonna CDs are worth $15 to a consumer, then are 10 used Madonna CDs worth $30? Not necessarily. It depends on whether the consumer relies on feelings or calculations to make the purchasing decision, according to a new study in APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 133, No. 1).

Christopher Hsee, PhD, and Yuval Rottenstreich, PhD, both of the University of Chicago, investigated the relationship between the scope of a stimulus--a quantitative value such as the number of CDs in a set or the monetary value of a book--and the subjective value that people place on that stimulus. They found that when people rely on logical thought processes, or calculation, to determine the value of something, their estimates vary with the object's scope; but when people rely on feelings to estimate value, they tend to ignore scope.

The researchers asked 115 college students to complete two questionnaires that the students didn't know were related. The first questionnaire was really a priming task: Half the students were asked questions that required deliberate calculations, such as "If an object travels at five feet per second, then by your calculation how far will it travel in 360 seconds," while the other half were asked questions that required them to consider their feelings, such as "When you hear the name 'George W. Bush' how do you feel?"

The second questionnaire asked the students how much money they would be willing to spend for a set of used Madonna CDs. In half of the questionnaires, the set contained five CDs; in the other half, it contained 10 CDs.

The researchers found that the students primed to calculate were willing to pay significantly more for the 10 CD set than for the five CD set ($28.81 and $15.10, respectively, on average). Yet the students who had been primed to consider their feelings suggested nearly equal values for the two sets ($19.77 and $22.64, respectively).

According to the researchers, many factors can influence whether a person uses feeling or calculation to estimate value. Some stimuli simply elicit more feelings than others--a picture of a cute panda bear, say, will elicit more emotion than a dot. In fact, in a second experiment, the researchers found that people were willing to donate significantly more money to save four pandas than to save one panda when the pandas were represented by dots. When the pandas were represented by cute panda pictures, though, people said they would donate about the same amount to save one as to save four.

In the real world, Hsee says, most valuations mix feeling and calculation. But he cautions that people should be aware of how emotions influence their valuation decisions.

"In most circumstances, I think that people should pay attention to scope variables like probability and quantity," he says. "And people should be aware that when they are emotional, they may become insensitive to these variables."