Patti Williams is an Ira A. Lipman Associate Professor of Marketing at Wharton. Her research and teaching focuses on conscious and non-conscious processes in consumer decision-making, emotion regulation, emotional and attitudinal ambivalence, and the persuasive effects of emotion.
Professor Williams squeezes me in for a quick chat right before she heads off for the weekend to a national marketing conference. What gave her this passion for marketing? Why study emotions?
“I was actually an MBA student at UCLA, getting my marketing major, when I decided in my 2nd year to stay and get a PHD. In the PHD program I didn’t really get to emotions until my 2nd year. I just sort of found myself asking questions around emotions: why do people feel what they feel? How do feelings impact the decisions they make? I just naturally gravitated towards there more than anything else.”
Now Professor Williams’ research focuses on emotions, identity, and the degree to which certain identities might be associated with certain emotions.
“We find volunteers are motivated by sadness, because it promotes empathy and pro-social behaviors. If I feel sad for someone then I’m more likely to want to help them. Environmentalists are associated with disgust. Disgust is about violations of moral purity so environmentalists feel really disgusted when the environment has been violated in some way.”
Sadness and disgust are all negative emotions, which Professor Williams chooses to focus on because people aren’t supposed to be motivated by negative emotions. Finding evidence that people seek out these negative emotions shows that it’s not just about feeling good, like it would be with a positive emotion.
“We’ve found that anger is a relevant emotion for athletes. Anger is all about pushing back against something; anger helps athletes perform better, as long as it’s not too intense. So if we ask people to write about a time they were an athlete to activate this identity, they are faster to recognize anger in the environment and they like angry faces more than other emotional expressions. They will consume more products that help them maintain their anger and consume less of products that will try to get rid of anger.”
This being a business school, I turn to the next natural question: how do I make money off of this?
“To me Under Armour is a company that does this incredibly well. Their ads and their pictures are really aggressive. It’s not a happy, cheerful kind of athleticism, it’s a really hard edged kind of aggressive athleticism. And it’s clear that it works for them. They don’t even have to talk about all the other things that are associated with being an athlete, it’s just about getting the emotion right.”
“What are some other interesting things you’ve found in your research on emotions and marketing?”
“Mixed emotions when people engage in indulgent behaviors. If I’m tempted to eat a cookie, what kind of emotions do I feel? We find people feel mixtures of emotions: happy about the cookie but kinda guilty at the same time. We have some nice work showing that more prudent people who are better at controlling their impulses, their happiness from that cookie declines and their guilt from the cookie increases, which helps them to avoid impulsive behaviors down the road. But more impulsive people, the guilt dissipates really quickly and they’re left with the positive emotion, which makes them more likely to engage in impulsive behaviors the 2nd time around.”
So yes, maybe you should put down that cookie, because we are definitely all judging you and your impulsiveness.
“To prepare for this interview I did some Googling to see what interesting things I could find out, but nothing came up. What can I NOT find out about you in the Internet?”
Professor Williams laughs and then responds, “Professionally, I’ve been doing tons of work with the Estee Lauder Companies, helping them to establish a Global Marketing University for their employees around the world. I really love the company and the opportunity to interact with their most senior marketing leaders. Personally, I grew up dancing my whole life, doing ballet. I danced all the way through college, though I haven’t done it in awhile.”
Ultimately, Professor William’s work is not just for marketers and companies; it’s also meant to help consumers to make better decisions for themselves and understand how they respond or regulate their emotional reactions to products.
1. What is your favorite word? Emotion
2. What is your least favorite word? No
3. What makes you happy? My family
4. What makes you unhappy? Anytime life gets overwhelming, which around the Wharton school can happen a lot.
5. What sound do you love? My daughter playing the piano
6. What sound do you hate? My son complaining about doing his homework
7. What is your favorite curse word? Fuck, for sure! I say it about a thousand times a day.
8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Dancer
9. What profession would you not like to do? Member of the House of Representatives…at least this week*
10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Hello. There’s some friends and family waiting for you here.
*Interview conducted during the government shutdown