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Dim the Lights, Dampen Your Emotions

• January 10, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Peter Gudella/Shutterstock)

New research suggests bright lighting intensifies both positive and negative feelings.

Increasingly, it feels like the world is run by hotheads—people driven by such intense emotions that they can’t bring themselves to compromise, even if they intellectually understand the importance of meeting in the middle.

Well, newly published research offers a possible solution to this dilemma. It suggests Congressional conference committees, divorce settlement negotiations, and peace talks between warring factions all have a better chance of success if they take place in a dimly lit room.

It’s not only that dusky conditions increase creativity, which can play a helpful role in forging compromise. This study suggests emotions—positive and negative alike—are heightened in the presence of bright light.

If your city council is dealing with a contentious issue, perhaps tempers might be cooler if the lighting in the chamber isn’t quite so intense.

It seems our minds reflexively associate light with heat, and the notion of physical heat stimulates emotional heat. As a result, the intensity of light appears to increase the intensity of one’s feelings—a good thing if you’re on a romantic fling, but problematic in situations that demand a dispassionate response.

“These findings suggest a simple way to nudge people into being less emotional: by simply turning the lights down,” write Alison Jing Xu of the University of Toronto and Aparna Labroo of Northwestern University. Their study is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Xu and Labroo describe five experiments that provide evidence for their thesis. Arguably the most telling one featured 98 university students who were randomly assigned to visit a brightly lit lab (with fluorescent ceiling lights turned on) or a dimly lit one (illuminated only by the light from computer monitors). They were told researchers were “collecting consumers’ reaction to potential advertising plots and models.”

The participants were first asked to read a script for a television commercial in which a young man named Alex, who was running late for work, engaged in a series of behaviors that could be perceived as combative or antagonistic. Then, using a one-to-nine scale, they assessed how aggressive, hostile, and hot-tempered they found the fictional character.

The results: Those who performed the experiments under bright lights rated him higher on those aggression-related measurements, meaning they were more likely to perceive ambiguous actions as aggressive.

In the second part of the experiment, the participants (34 men and 64 women) looked at photographs of three female models and were asked to judge their sexiness on a one-to-seven scale.

Once again, bright lighting intensified their reactions. “Participants seated in a bright room judged all three women to be hotter,” Xu and Labroo report.

This suggests that “bright light polarizes judgments of both positive and negative stimuli,” the researchers write. Together with the results of the other experiments, it provides evidence that “the connection between bright light and emotional intensification is fundamental,” reflecting physiological connections between light, warmth, and strong emotions.

“A majority of everyday decisions are made under bright light,” Xu and Labroo note, “and as a result are likely to be impacted emotionally in this manner.”

So if your city council is dealing with a contentious issue, perhaps tempers might be cooler if the lighting in the chamber isn’t quite so intense. And closer to home, if your significant other dims the lights tonight, don’t assume it’s an invitation to intimacy. He or she may simply be trying to calm you down.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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