Role of emotion in consumer behavior

We like to think that humans are rational, well-calculated, analytical beings, especially when it comes to handing over our credit card at the register or clicking ‘add to cart’ on our next Afterpay purchase. As it happens, our emotions actually play a very big role in our decision-making process. With a collective shift to more data-driven strategies, marketers are now, more so than ever, taking the role of rationality in consumer behavior with a grain of salt and finding ways to apply the scientific method to understand those unconscious drivers. 

Let’s look at a few studies:

  • A quick trip down psychology 101 lane:  The neurotransmitter, Serotonin, which helps us regulate emotions and feelings also plays a crucial role in decision making. A study by Crockett and colleagues (2008)  found that a reduction in serotonin impairs the participant’s ability to cope with complex decisions in social situations. A more recent study on consumer behaviour from Marcel Lichters and colleagues (2016) also found that a reduction in serotonin resulted in purchase deferral.

  • Rationality can’t keep up with our emotions: According to consumer behavior specialist, Phillip Adcock, emotional reactions are 3,000 times faster than rational thought, we use rationality to validate our initial impulse. Further, he suggests that parts of the brain that take the wheel on our emotions are processing five times faster than the parts of the brain that are reserved for rational thought. To put that in a marketing context, a number of studies found that consumers displayed brand preference based on visual appeal, minimal written content and a strong brand identity. Makes sense – the technique reduces cognitive load while making the message memorable!  

  • Elliot can’t make a decision: Elliot suffered damage to his prefrontal cortex – a vital part of the emotional puzzle. He was devoid of feelings and was unable to display basic emotional characteristics such as empathy. Neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio concluded that Elliot’s inability to draw on his emotions also severely impacted his ability to make decisions, even in the most mundane situations, highlighting the integral role of the unconscious drivers in the decision-making process. A follow-up study by Damasio found that shoppers will first evaluate purchase decision based on personal feelings rather than product features of facts i.e. sell the sizzle not the sausage.

How do we know this?

The adoption of technology means that we are increasingly analysing the unobservable behaviour rather than relying on physical reactions or verbal confirmation. Medical imaging techniques such as the fMRI brain scans and electroencephalogram tests (EEG), which capture the brain’s electrical activity have been used to show which part of the brain is activated when we engage with and evaluate brands.

Drawbacks of neuromarketing techniques

If you ask a psychologist if they can read your mind, the answer is no. In the very same way, we cannot rely on neuroimaging techniques to define a particular emotion based on electric brain impulses. As suggested by neuroscientist Molly Crockett, brain scans can be misleading and cannot “read people's thoughts” or fully encapsulate their true intentions. For example, a single region of the brain is in charge of numerous emotions. Take the amygdala, which is activated when we engage in behavior that elicits either pleasure or anger. It’s too great a stretch to suggest that we could boil down the highly complex brain to a single purpose or response.

Despite the increasingly important role of emotions in understanding consumer behaviour, we should not ignore the role of rationality as a driver. So while there’s no defined “buy” button in the human brain, we can still combine our understanding of human behaviour with data analysis to boost likeability and appeal to consumers using emotion. The heart wants what it wants...