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Your Emotions’ Influence on Decision-Making

The human brain has come a long way since its divergence from the brain we share with other reptiles (called the r-brain; “r” for reptilian) that is over 500 million years old. It controls the most basic of human functions such as breathing and temperature control and is thus very well protected from injury by the above layers. The next layer is the limbic system or mammalian brain that is involved in emotions and storing and enabling the recall of memories.
The part that makes us human (a mere 100 000 years young) is the cerebral cortex or neocortex. It’s home to our personality, emotions and allows us to make high-order decisions that other mammals cannot do. We know it houses our emotions because of the brutal procedures known as a lobotomy that was conducted on mentally ill patients in the first half of the 20th century to calm them down.  Many ended up unemotional, showed signs of apathy or ended up in a vegetative state.

a person that cannot experience emotions cannot make up his/her mind
I am tempted to ask: what were the doctors ‘thinking?!’ It is obvious that surgery to the frontal lobe leaves a person emotionally impaired, but the main problem is this – an inability to make decisions. Read between the lines and you’ll come to a startling paradox: a person that cannot experience emotions cannot make up his/her mind.


Pavlov responds
Ivan Pavlov gained fame for his conditioning theories involving experiments with dogs. He consequently invented the stimulus-response theory that forms the basis of how many of our decisions are made. When we are presented with a stimulus (e.g. loud bang), it is followed by a response (e.g. flinching). But this is where it gets interesting: our senses are inextricably linked to our emotions. So when you experience stimuli (e.g. beautiful music), it leads to an emotion (happiness, crying(?) etc.) Since our senses encompass all possible ways of experience (according to Empiricists like David Hume, but this debate for another time), it is little wonder that our senses, when presented with a stimulus elicit such a strong emotional response.


I sense an emotional decision coming
The brain’s physical structure confirms this fact. In a cunning experiment, researchers made subjects (i.e. people) choose between cake and fruit salad after having asked to remember a 5-digit number. Simple enough – nothing out of the ordinary. Repeating the experiment, researchers asked subjects to remember a 2-digit number and then again choose between the chocolate cake and fruit salad. The result where clear-cut (quite literally). The vast majority chose the slice of chocolate cake in the first instance, whereas in the second instance, they chose the fruit salad. The reason, the researchers theorise, is because self-control shares a mutual area with rationality. Self-control gets trumped because it is also part of the prefrontal cortex and hence when you tax the brain with remembering something, you make an emotional decision. It is for this reason that we frequently choose the chocolate cake over the carrots (well, who would EVER confuse dessert with main course in any case?).

Even though our emotions affect our decisions in profound ways, they are a fundamental part of our ability to make decisions and colouring our experiences.
So, the next time you want to resist temptation of the chocolate cake, forget whatever you’re remembering …


Marketing Implications

It is quite easy for brains to be ‘overwhelmed’ with information. What makes matters worse is that the way the brain is structured makes it impossible for us to not involve emotion when deciding. Neuron activity radiates outward from the limbic system (feelings, emotions) to the neocortex, where we make decisions. Because our senses are so intimately linked to our brains (and more specifically the  limbic system), it is easy for emotions (and memory) to elicit strong positive/negative feelings. Does an advertisement of a Mercedes elicit different emotions, feelings and perceptions than, say, a Mazda? Sure it does. A Mercedes might evoke a perception of sophistication, success and elegance; whereas Mazda might have a brand personality of ‘happy-go-lucky’. As a result, people will experience different emotions when thinking of different brands. The question is: what part of the brain is your business targeting?

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Werner van Zyl
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