Why emotion plays a critical role in decision making

By Chloe Ellis, Group CEO

January 30, 2019 | 5 min read

Almost everyone would accept that emotion has an important role to play in marketing, but what isn’t appreciated is just how significant it is in driving both engagement and decision making.

Today’s consumers are bombarded with a vast amount of marketing comms and unsurprisingly, only a miniscule amount of that gets through. On average, we’re exposed to 5,000+ brand messages every day, but we’re aware of about 86 with only 12 making a lasting impression (Yankelovich, 2016). So the percentage we engage with is tiny and the percentage that has any effect on us is even smaller, yet marketers expect a huge amount of cognitive reflection to be applied to consuming their brand messages. This just isn’t realistic.

There’s a limit to how many messages we can give our attention to, because attention is a limited resource; we don’t have enough neural capacity to pay attention to all that surrounds us, so as the number of media channels and marketing output increases, so does competition over neural capacity for processing (Tiexiera, 2014). This means that‘always on’ methods of increasing quantity and frequency of communications could be viewed as simply contributing to the problem by pushing out more ‘stuff’.

Us humans don’t have time to process the volume of information in a reflective fashion, so instead we use subconscious signals in the form of feelings and thoughts that are created by emotion, to alert us to pay attention. Emotion effectively serves as a cueing system.

Emotions have huge action potential and can enable consumers to receive messages they wouldn’t accurately perceive in another way, so if brands want to cut-through the noise and optimise messaging to drive action, they need to give much more consideration to the power of emotion.

Contrary to what is generally believed, all decisions are in fact informed by emotion. New research into the brain’s action pathways, utilising FMRI scanning, has helped us understand how emotion translates into action. We use emotions both as an appraisal tool and a guide for behaviour.

In the past a crucial objective of a consumer’s attention to marketing was to gain information about a product. In the ‘Information Age’ this is no longer a primary need. As Tiexiera’s recent study points out, marketing must now look to drive consumer action, not through information but through emotional connection, in order to meet these modern primary needs.

So a brand that understands how human behaviour is driven by subconscious signals in the form of emotions can optimise their marketing. However, like people, brands often go wrong by too readily buying into some common myths about emotions.

Let’s have a go at de-bunking a few…

You don’t have to actively experience an emotion for it to affect behaviour

Dennet (2016) identified that the cognitive appraisal that leads to a ‘feeling’ is done non-consciously, therefore just because someone isn’t aware of an emotion, it doesn’t mean it’s not affecting how they behave.

With the unconscious mind being able to process 500,000 times more information per/second than the conscious mind (Lipton 2015), emotional messaging will be decoded faster. Decreasing attention spans mean that this is vital. More emotional information is not hard for us, it unconsciously engages us.

So to cut-through and deepen connection, brands must prioritise the role that emotional messaging plays in their marketing.

Emotions aren’t ‘just a feeling’. Far from it.

Emotions are part of a continual cognitive appraisal and feedback process. This cyclical ‘loop’ demonstrates that emotions underpin many more decisions than simply those based on strong feelings.

This appraisal system has evolved for our survival. It forms the basis of our decision on not just how to act, but who to trust. Emotion lies at its centre. If a brand prioritises the emotional connection, they can open a consumer to new ideas, drive behaviour and establish trust.

Emotions are actually very rational.

They’re part of the mechanism of reasoning and inform even our most logical decisions. It’s not enough just to know what should be done; it’s also necessary to feel it.

Zaltman’s (2016) study showed that 95% of our cognition happens in our emotional brain. Furthermore, Damaioi’s 2000 seminal study found that when humans had damaged the area of their brain where emotions were generated and processed, despite still being able to use logic and function completely normally, individuals void of emotion seriously struggled to make any decisions, even simple decisions like what to eat for lunch.

Emotions are appraisals of situations that drive survival and wellbeing. If a message doesn’t make us feel something, we are unlikely to act on it. So we need to think of emotions as guidelines for every decision, without which there would be no consumer action.

Brands are competing against an ever-increasing wall of noise, but an understanding of the science behind emotion can help us to play smarter, drive new insight and provide a lens for more sophisticated content and consumer experiences.

By seeking to understand the complexity around emotions brands have, a huge opportunity to increase cut-through to drive action and most importantly, commercial return on their efforts.

It’s time to challenge the myths that have deprioritised the role of emotion and start to use them as an impact tool to guide behaviour.

It’s time to get emotional.

Chloe Ellis is the group CEO at Captivate Group.


Content created with:

Captivate Group

We help brands to inspire their audiences and affect the way they think, feel and behave.



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