How does lighting affect emotion? This question is interesting if you are, like me, relentlessly curious (ok, borderline basket-case geeky), about lighting and emotions separately and/or together. For example, high on my “to read” list is Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

This question is also intensely interesting if you are a retailer looking to improve sales (and customer experience in stores)- then the conversation quickly moves from intellectual curiosity to “when can we install it?” In fact I look to retailers as being among the first to rock the needle on this, as they have in general always invested heavily in quality lighting and probably always will. Pressured to understand, among other things, the complex relationships between online and in-store sales and customer experience, they also have much to gain immediately by learning more about the role lighting plays in how we shop and why we buy.

A couple of years ago I spent much time looking for research with useful conclusions, specifically on effect of high CRI lighting on sales. I only found one study done in London with, I think Xicato light sources, that appeared to support what I was looking for. So a study done by Zumbotel on “limbic theory” in retail lighting seems promising. But this article suffers from at least three significant problems, two of them evidenced in these two sentences:

“Moreover, the researchers asked explicit questions of some shoppers that revealed a generally positive attitude about the shop. The Limbic lighting is presumed to have led customers to spend more time in the store, to feel more relaxed, and ultimately to spend more on merchandise.”

The first problem is that researchers “asked explicit questions.” This technique produces the “leading the witness” problem, where people are unconsciously driven to give the researchers answers they think are the “correct ones.” In such a situation your unconscious mind (I might say the “limbic system,” except that I have a very incomplete understanding of this term) is probably telling you: “wow- here’s a serious person in a white lab coat with a clipboard, this must be really important…I want to help, so yes, what she said!” This scenario is exacerbated if the researcher is asking the subject to remember his or her feelings under certain previous lighting conditions – a triple whammy because we’re so unconscious of lighting in the first place, we don’t really know how we’re feeling much of the time, and our memory is consistently faulty, as eyewitness accounts in legal proceedings have consistently demonstrated. The effects of light on the emotions are subtle and complex but still powerful, or so we suspect, but we humans simply lack a basic ability to be aware of these effects consciously, so why rely on a method that seeks data from the conscious mind rather than the unconscious? This is a fundamentally flawed and unfortunately extremely common approach to behavioral research.

The second problem is that the lighting is “presumed” to have caused customers to spend more time in the store. This sounds entirely reasonable and may even in fact be true. But we don’t need elaborate behavioral studies to tell us this – retailers have known it ever since the invention of lighting. Presumption is the beginning of research, not the result. We need to know if the thing we presume is happening is indeed happening in a repeatable and verifiable way, and then we want to know exactly why, so we can repeat it.

The third problem is that this is only one study. It’s wonderful that sales went up 10%, but it’s simply too difficult to tell whether this was caused by lighting, there are too many other factors involved. Rushing to claims and conclusions and confusing correlation with causation are very common problems with research and with the publicity about research. I talk about these issues with our culture of science in a recent post on LinkedIn.

To continue picking at this, I don’t like the term “limbic lighting” just from a gut level marketing viewpoint. It is alliterative, thus more likely to be remembered and repeated as a “meme” (another squishy and persistent term). But my efforts to get a handle on what “limbic emotional assessment theory” or even “limbic system” means did not help. I am probably considerably more obsessed about brain science than the average bear, including the average retailer, but I’m still working on the difference between the amygdala and the hippocampus ( I know, frustrating huh? LOL). According to Wikipedia:

“The existence of such a system [limbic] as an isolated entity responsible for the neurological regulation of emotion has gone into disuse and currently it is considered as one of the many parts of the brain that regulate visceral, autonomic processes.” This squares with my understanding that earlier attempts to isolate specific functions in specific areas of the brain, while useful, have encountered things like, say, the concept of neuroplasticity, which describes the brain’s ability to retrain itself to reassign certain functions to different areas. And my sense is also that how the eyes process information is still not well understood, like so many things about brains. Hence applying research approaches that are not agreed upon by researchers themselves to people who won’t understand their basic premises in the first place seems a bit misguided.

Far better in my book to give us tools that make it easy to read unconscious emotional response, in context, specifically in a retail context. Fortunately such tools already exist and are, as far as I can tell, widely available. Called variously “emotion analytics” or “affective computing” these are software tools that can recognize emotional responses in facial expressions, eye movements and dilation, gait, voice, and other physical behavior. When applied in the correct context they can provide a steady stream of actionable data and can redefine what “research” means. For one thing, there will be no more waiting for the expensive people in white lab coats with clipboards to get back to you with their analysis, it’s done on the fly. One of the many very intriguing things about combining these tools with lighting is that lighting fixtures are the ideal locations for data gathering devices, both indoors and outdoors. And with the highly controllable lighting that is becoming the norm, much adjusting and in-situ testing and adaptation can be done cheaply and quickly. All this means that retailers will have great new systems with which to provide better environments for customers, and perhaps contribute something very valuable for research in other areas.

Stores may eventually be able to understand your emotions and communicate with you to help you feel good and make smarter purchases, not just spam you to death. It sounds very strange and perhaps almost unimaginable, but it’s entirely possible with today’s technology.

Clifton Stanley Lemon

About Clifton Stanley Lemon

Clifton Stanley Lemon is CEO of Clifton Lemon Associates, a consultancy providing strategy, product development, marketing and education services to manufacturers and firms in the lighting and energy sectors. He was formerly marketing communications manager for Soraa, director of business development at Integral Group in Oakland, and founder and CEO of BrandSequence, a customer research and brand management firm. He is an active writer and speaker, with extensive experience in event production and curriculum for professional development. He is president of the Illuminating Engineering Society San Francisco Section and sits on the advisory boards of Lighting Facts, Strategies in Light and LightShow West.

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