Strategic Communications 48: Are Emotional Decisions a Bad Thing?

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This is the 48th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

For centuries, we have prided ourselves on being rational thinkers and in the process we have disparaged any decisions based on emotion.  After all, being able to reason is what separates us from the animals and what has allowed us to develop the world around us.

Based on Simon Sinek’s assertion, we know that appealing to people’s emotions can inspire us to act (see Strategic Communications Part 43: Use the Golden Circle to Inspire Action Are emotional decisions otherwise a bad thing?  As a case in point, we previously discussed how people use emotions to justify their political decisions when presented with contradictory information (see Strategic Communications Part 47: When You Might Be Wasting Your Breath  As another example, it is emotions that cause us to use our credit cards to purchase things that we want instead of things that we need.

It is true that emotional decisions can sometimes have puzzling or negative consequences but, in fact, much of what we think is driven by emotions as our brain unconsciously processes data built upon our cumulative experiences.  For instance, as Jonah Lehrer illustrates in his book How We Decide, this is why quarterback Tom Brady is unable to describe his exceptional decision-making and how he knows where to throw the football – he just feels it.  It’s also why golfers play so well by feel and choke when they become over-analytical.

Sometimes emotions influence our decisions in obvious ways, such as what clothes we wear or even the computers we buy.  As Simon Sinek contends, most people likely buy Macs due to what the Apple brand represents and not because people have done their due diligence on how they compare to other computers.  And sometimes emotions affect our decisions in less obvious ways.

Mike Saint, our Chairman and CEO, accurately notes that most NIMBYs react emotionally to projects due to fear of the potential loss of their property values, negative impacts to their quality of life, etc.  As we’ve seen, emotion can be an extremely effective motivator.  That’s why it’s imperative to begin your education and outreach efforts as early as possible.  This will let people feel like they’re part of the process, allow you to frame your issue before it’s framed for you and enable you to appear reasonable even in the face of those who refuse to reason.

Along with the brain-imaging experiment that showed the lack of rational thought involved in people justifying their political positions discussed earlier (see Strategic Communications Part 47: When You Might Be Wasting Your Breath, Lehrer presents two other experiments that demonstrate how emotions even dictate financial and moral behaviors.  The first experiment is relative to Loss Aversion Theory, which was first identified by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky.  This theory simply posits that people have a greater aversion to losses than they have a penchant for gains.  This is why people sell their appreciating stocks prematurely and hang on to depreciating stocks, one of the most common investing mistakes.

An experiment developed by Antonio Damasio and George Lowenstein illustrates this emotional reaction to losses well.  In this experiment, subjects are given the option to invest $1.00 or invest nothing based on the flip of a coin.  If the result is heads the subject would lose a $1.00 and if the result is tails the subject would be paid $2.50.  The game continues in this manner for twenty rounds.  The perfectly rational choice is to invest each time as the value of each round is greater based on the 50 percent chance of getting tails.  Statistically, there’s only a 13 percent chance that someone will end up with less than $20.00.  Nevertheless, this experiment continuously shows that people will only invest a fraction of the time for fear of losing money.

The ultimatum game is another experiment which demonstrates that moral decisions are also determined by emotions.  In this game, one person, the proposer, is given $10.00 and is asked to split the money with another person, the responder.  The responder can either accept or reject the offer.  However, if the offer is rejected, neither participant gains anything.  You might expect that proposers would offer a minimum amount and responders would accept this offer because the minimum is still better than nothing.  However, results show that responders will usually reject any offer they see as unfair and that proposers will typically even anticipate this rejection due to their own sense of fairness.  Moreover, this game has been played throughout the world with similar results, regardless of culture.

These examples help us to better understand human behavior and more effectively communicate.  A by-product of Loss Aversion Theory, for instance, is the framing effect.  That is, people react differently to choices depending upon whether they are framed as a gain or a loss.  This is why twice as many people would opt for surgery when framed as having an 80% success rate compared to a 20% failure rate.

So, we know that emotional decisions aren’t necessarily bad.  We also know that they’re much more prevalent and unpredictable than most people imagine.  But how do people decide?  As Lehrer says, there’s no secret recipe.  We just need to recognize that people are not always completely rational and, therefore, we need to think about how people are thinking.  Understanding this dialectic between reason and emotion is essential in establishing a constructive public dialogue.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email

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