Study: For a Calmer Office, Dim the Lights

Bright lights, big emotions.
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Problem: Emotions running high in middle school homeroom may not have been entirely due to hormones. There’s something about the harsh light of a flickering fluorescent bulb gleaming off those horrendous beige walls that can make a person a little crazy.

And if you grow up to work in an office, the problem will carry on into your adult life. If you walk into a meeting room where the lights are off, and someone makes a move to turn them on, there is a two-to-one chance someone else will say “I like it this way,” followed by a murmured chorus of assent. But they’ll probably turn the lights on anyway.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers at the University of Toronto and Northwestern University examined the effect bright light can have on our emotions.

Methodology: Previous research has shown that bright, sunny days can make people more helpful, and report higher well-being. But they can also make people who are already depressed feel worse. The researchers also noted earlier studies that showed that people perceive brighter light as being warmer, and that warmth increases emotional intensity. So, they hypothesized that bright lights intensify emotional responses—whether they be positive or negative, and tested that in a series of six experiments.

First, they had students rate the “warmth” of a room lit by either fluorescent lights or computer monitors—the room’s actual temperature was constant. Then, in those same bright and dim conditions, they had participants: choose between chicken wing sauces ranked from mild to hot; judge how aggressive a fictional person was; judge how hot-meaning-attractive three women were; report their feelings toward positive, negative, and neutral words; and taste-test a “favorable” orange juice or “unfavorable” vegetable juice. (Note: per the study, “pretesting confirmed that the favorable juice is indeed favorable, while the unfavorable juice is unfavorable.” JFYI.)

Another experiment repeated the word-assessment task, but some participants were told in advance that the room’s brightness might affect their judgment, and to avoid that if they could.

Results: The participants thought the room was warmer when the fluorescent lights were on than when it was lit just by computer monitors. They were not noticeably more aroused in the brighter condition, though, so, not that kind of warm.

In the brighter room, participants wanted spicier chicken wing sauce, thought the fictional character was more aggressive, found the women more attractive, felt better about the positive words and worse about the negative words, and drank more favorable juice and less unfavorable juice. When the researchers told participants that the brightness of the room might affect their answers, they were more conservative in their reactions to the positive words, but not the negative words, “implying that people are unaware of how ambient brightness may be impacting their affective responses and that the link between brightness and affective response may be operating at a basic, non-conscious level, as we propose,” the researchers write.

Implications: Under bright lights, we feel more intensely. We want the spicy food, the favorable juice (?), the high highs, and the low lows. Maybe we feel like the spotlight’s turned on us and we need to perform our lives more intensely, I don’t know. But maybe if you’re overwhelmed, if you just have too many feelings, the soft glow of a lamp could mellow you out.

If you want to live on the edge, turn the lights up.

The study, "Incandescent Affect: Turning On The Hot Emotional System With Bright Light," appeared in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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