Why We Always Talk About the Weather

By Sentient Decision Science, Inc.
June 15, 2010
I’m sure we’ve all noticed that the weather is the classic go-to conversation starter if you’re in need of small-talk, especially if you’re with a stranger and have nothing to say. It’s always a wonderful candidate for speaking-about-nothing because it’s ubiquitous (there’s weather everywhere), it affects everyone, and it’s a fairly objective, neutral topic. For those same reasons, it’s also an interesting topic for behavioral science.

In 1983, social psychologists Schwarz and Clore investigated the actual affect of the weather on our emotional states. We’ve all had the intuition that there’s a strong correlation between the weather and our moods (not to mention the whole mid-winter-depression thing), but to what extent does the weather fool our perception of contentedness with our entire lives?
Can a generally content and happy person be made sad by the weather subconsciously? This was the focal question sought by Schwarz and Clore in their study, entitled Misattribution, and Judgments of Well-Being: Informative and Directive Functions of Affective States. Another paradigmatic case of the social-psychologist title-[colon]-title syndrome, but nevertheless a fascinating study.
In this study, the researchers found that participants’ self-reported happiness and overall life satisfaction changed based on the climate. Of course, the day’s weather is not normally a rational basis for evaluating our overall satisfaction with our lives, but it is an understandable phenomenon. At some point, we’ve all experienced an uplifting mood on a warm spring day, and consequently breathed overtired laments on a grey, rainy afternoon.
While conducting a series of interviews, a simple “how’s the weather there?” question over-the-phone clued researches in not only to the weather in the participant’s location, but also served as a priming mechanism. As the participants thought about the weather before they answered questions about their emotional well-being, they continued to register and associate the external climate with their internal climate.
Additionally, people who reported unpleasant moods or low levels of satisfaction “appeared to seek personally irrelevant explanations for [such] states when explanations were available,” according to the researchers conducting the study.
Superficially, this study demonstrated that people thinking sad thoughts are more likely to continue thinking sad thoughts; if you’re asked to discuss a sad event in your life and then asked how you feel about your life in general, you’re more inclined to reflect negatively on your life as a whole because you have been “primed” to do so.
The more subtle and relevant insight, however, is that people can be misdirected and emotionally confused by subconscious stimuli. The weather is only one example to this purpose; a generally happy, balanced person who sees something that bothers them can quickly become unsettled. But, in a world overloaded with choice and variety, we see so much more than we actually notice. And what we see and don’t notice affects us at a subconscious level.
So the next time you are mad/sad/glad, remember that it may have little to do with your situation, and everything to do with your environment.

This revelation into people’s penchant for irrational behavior indicates remarkable progress in the psychological community, but also has many functional applications for market researchers. Anyone in the business of anticipating behavior needs to know that deep-down, we’re irrational, emotional decision-makers and, to a large extent, a docile product of the environment we’re placed in.
So… are you savvy to these questions?

  • What emotional “vibes” does your product give off?
  • How do your marketing efforts make people feel?
  • What associations do your customers and prospects have with your brand? Are you aware of those associations?
  • Does your advertising deliberately take into consideration the subconscious and emotional associations with your product?
  • Are you measuring the subconscious associations with your brand and products? Do you know which automatic associations drive the most sales, and how your advertising reinforces the most important associations?

Because of our proclivity to make decisions based on feeling, these elusive factors could be the make-or-break issue for your consumer market.

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Just see how blatantly some of these advertisers worked subconscious weather associations into their commercial scheme:
How many  pharmaceutical advertisements have you seen using the contrast of weather in order to symbolize healing? (Notice how the camera does not pan to the bright blue sky until the drug’s name is specifically mentioned).
Of course, energy drinks and sodas go hand in hand with lightning. And to answer the $500 question: Yes, men are statistically more likely to be hit by lightning, but most weather experts attribute this fact to men’s implacable desire to continue whatever they’re doing, despite any impending weather concerns.
These are just a few examples that employ weather as an subconscious emotional stimulus to positively promote observers associations’ with the product. But the bottom line of Schwartz and Clore’s mid-80s study is that any physical or conceptual factor – color, vocabulary, setting, shape, presentation – activates an emotional mechanism that lives behind the consumer’s waking life, and affects their conscious decisions. Getting at this mechanism, therefore, should be the goal of any good marketing platform.
Sentient is in the business of exploring these emotional mechanisms for your products, and ultimately bridging transparency between what you sell to your customers and what they think of it when they see it. Unless you don’t believe in psychology and statistical science, this is the future of market research.



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