How Emotions Influence the Way We Make Decisions

by Mark Smither
February 27, 2013

Green, red, blue or orange?

How do farmers decide which tractor brand is right for their operation? How do they determine which precision ag system to use or which seed to purchase? For that matter, how do any of us come to a logical conclusion and eventually make a purchase decision? The answer may have less to do with logic and more to do with the way we, as human beings, are guided by our emotions.

It all starts in the brain.

According to neuroscience research, our brains are hardwired a certain way. The middle part of our brain is known as the limbic system, which controls basic intuitive functions such as fear, anger, love and hunger. This is where we make quick, instinctive decisions that are intended to keep us alive. Surrounding the mid-brain is our cerebral cortex, which in evolutionary terms is much newer. This is where we assign intelligence and logic to our emotional responses.

The two parts of our brain work together, but in very specific sequence. Scientists have determined that, just like our prehistoric ancestors, we form an emotional response to what we see or hear before we begin to apply context and judgment. We rely on our mood, feelings and senses.

For marketers, it is important to understand how the emotional and logical functions of the brain ultimately guide purchase decisions—even for farmers who can be firmly set in their ways. If marketers can’t make an emotional connection with consumers first, it becomes nearly impossible to make a logical connection later. Essentially, emotion is the gatekeeper to information.

Most people don’t like to acknowledge the role of emotion in purchase decisions. We tend to value decisions that are made after examining all the facts, eliminating all the possibilities and arriving at an indisputable conclusion. That may make us feel more comfortable, but in truth, we are still very much guided by our emotions.

To prove this point, two researchers from McCombs School of Business, Raj Raghunathan and Szu Chi Haung, conducted a study to determine if consumers make their choices based on logic, or based on their emotions or moods.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers showed two groups of consumers an attractive chicken and an ugly chicken. The attractive chicken was what we’ve come to expect as a good-looking chicken. It was healthy and plump. The ugly chicken was scrawny and sickly looking.

In the experiment, group one was told that the attractive chicken didn’t taste all that great, but was better for them. The second group was told that the attractive chicken tasted good, but wasn’t very healthy.

In both groups, people preferred the plump attractive chicken. But they didn’t admit it was based on the chicken’s appearance. Instead, they backed up their emotional decisions with a logical explanation. Group one said they preferred chicken that was good for them. Group two said that taste was most important. Raghunathan and Haung proved that humans justify their emotional choices with non-emotional rationale.

As marketers, we are eager to sell. We have so much data and can’t wait to share it. What this research is telling us, however, is that we need to slow down. In order to be successful we must focus on the consumer’s emotions and make our appeal there, especially at first.

Think branding and image campaigns don’t matter? This research reiterates their importance. We must appeal to a consumer’s senses and moods to make that connection. And the sooner we accomplish this, the better. Why? Because once they feel that connection to a product and to a brand, it is hard to get them to stop, re-evaluate their decision and then change their mind. It’s a challenge to get them to switch brand loyalty.

This is not to say we should discount the data or forget the facts. Quite the contrary. They still hold an incredible amount of value. What it does mean is we cannot force data or facts upon a consumer without first appealing to those important emotions that are driving their purchasing decisions. We can use performance data to back up the emotional connection and help consumers justify their decisions.

So back to the question: green, blue, red or orange? What are the feelings attached to green equipment in the field? What sorts of memories are associated with an orange tractor in the yard? Those connections are strong. Those loyalties run deep. And what we’ve learned is we must create those connections early. We do it by appealing to the senses and emotions of consumers and then give them good, solid information to back up their decisions.

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