Fresh From The Lab: Dim Lights Increase Impulsive Behaviour

29 June 2015

On a daily basis we are faced with a vast amount of new information, people and situations. We are forced to make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions; what to eat, where to buy our coffee, what to wear, where to go for lunch, which route to take to pick up kids from the football practice, what to say to impress your boss, where to go for drinks with your friends… Oh! I’m already tired!

Imagine how impossible it would have been to face all these decisions and judge all these new people, environments and situations if it wasn’t for the incredible evolution of our brain. We have survived as a species because our brain developed to manage and ever increasing amount of information, decisions and actions; and most importantly do it outside of our awareness. This way our conscious can focus on courtship, hunting and creating culture.

That however means that there are many evolutionary-based impulses that can govern our decisions and behaviour without us knowing. The societies were cleverly designed to inhibit or at least temper many of these impulses for the greater good of the masses. However, is some circumstances these impulses are let loose.

One of the aspects which can affect whether we behave in an impulsive or socially acceptable way is the level of brightness. Why do you think all the bars and clubs are so dark!?

There have been many scientist and many studies throughout the last few decades looking at the influence of light on our behaviour, emotions, performance and desires. Particularly interesting was the work developed by two German researches who’ve tested the influence of light on self-awareness, impulsive behaviour and self-control.

In a series of 5 experiments the scientists placed two different groups of participants in two rooms for 1 hour each: one with bright lights (1500 lux) and the other with dimmed lights (500 lux). During this time, researchers asked to participants to fill in various questionnaires with the aim of assessing their level of private and public self-awareness, self-control and impulsive behaviour. Finally, they also tested subconscious attitudes (approach or avoidance) towards desire-related cues (using smoking-related cues) by implementing an Implicit Association Test (IAT).

Researchers found that when participants were placed in the brightly lit room their public self-awareness increased; meaning they were more concerned about how to behave in front of the other participants. The socially acceptable behaviour was amplified due to the simple subconscious association between bright lights and being exposed and visible to others.

Participants placed in the room revia with dimmed lights showed a more impulsive behaviour and exhibited higher subconscious approach attitude on the IAT test, proving that when in the dimly lit environment people tend to follow their desires and urges more. Because we subconsciously associate darker rooms with less social exposure, we feel that we won’t be found out if we act according to our impulses. Hence we let loose and the rest is a history…

What are the benefits of this knowledge to retailers and hospitality operators?

Knowing how the light is influencing our self-awareness and impulsive behaviour can help designers and managers to control what products/services sell more and how consumers feel about spending money.

For example, because chocolate and cakes are usually associated with indulgence, it would be better to create softly lit environments to let people indulge in peace and not feel socially judged for consuming all that sugar.

Luxury brands usually recognise that simple truth. This is why majority of the luxury brand stores aren’t too bright. However, if a product is to be treated as a status symbol, bright lights might prove more beneficial in positively affecting its sales.

If we however look at a popular and fashionable brands, we notice that their stores are often brightly lit to activate the public self-awareness and get people to purchase trendy items.

In the case of a hotel, restaurant or bar, the choice of the brightness of the lighting will be dependent on what you want consumers to buy and how you want them to stay. If you want to them to buy the new dish on the menu or try a new, cool cocktail, a slightly brighter light can help you. If you want them to stay longer and buy more, differentiating the level of brightness can be the best solution.

So really how bright or dark your brand space should be is dependent on what you want to communicate about your brand and products, what you want people to buy and how long do you want them to stay.

Finally, designers, retailers and hospitality professionals can’t forget that environment is not just dependent on one sensory cue. Other senses such as smell, sound, taste, touch, balance, temperature are going to influence consumers’ perceptions and behaviours too.

Therefore clearly establishing what brand perception as well as consumers’ emotions, behaviours and decisions you want to achieve can only help you in creating an emotionally engaging environment with clear commercial benefits.