Letting the Heart Decide

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

It is no secret that emotional intuition plays a pivotal role in human behavior. As Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has explained in his work, the concept of “the emotional dog and its rational tail” provides a firm foundation for understanding why humans make the choices that they do. As much as we would like to think that our behaviors are the result of logic and careful reasoning, Haidt’s work clearly shows that we generally use our heart to make our decisions and then use our brain to justify them afterward. 

Recent research out of the journal of Decision and Judgment Making confirms this emotion first/rationality later concept, however, it also adds some nuance. In this research by Gärtner et al., participants were asked to make a series of decisions within individual tasks as well as during cooperative/competitive games with other participants. In the three study conditions, one group was asked to make all their decisions “by relying on [their] heart rather than [their] brain.”  In a baseline condition, participants were given no instructions outside of what was required for them to engage in the task/game. While in the remaining condition, the participants were asked to make all their decisions “by relying on [their] brain rather than [their] heart.” 

These tasks and games were designed to test participants’ level of intuition and prosocial behavior (i.e., willingness to help other people). In the tasks that measured intuition, participants who had been instructed to use their hearts, tended to make their choices faster and made less use of the information available to them. In the cooperative/competitive games, those same participants displayed elevated levels of prosocial behavior by exerting a higher-than-average amount of individual effort to either help their “opponents” or to contribute to the overall well-being of the group.

In the study condition where participants were asked to use their brain in making their decisions, the opposite effects were shown. These participants instead made more use of the information available to them and were significantly more cautious in contributing their individual efforts towards group goals or increasing the well-being of their “opponents.”

Overall, the researchers found that explicitly asking someone to “let their heart decide,” not only increased their baseline levels of intuitive reasoning but also increased their preference to engage in helpful and prosocial behaviors for the benefit of those around them.

Main things for marketers to keep in mind:

  1. When it comes to cause marketing, charity efforts, or other types of prosocial messaging, don’t be afraid to directly appeal to consumers’ emotions. Explicitly asking consumers to “follow their heart” can be highly motivating when the cause is truly seen as a communal good.
  2. Encouraging the heart to decide is highly effective in the right circumstances, however, even in situations where this approach is ideal, marketers still need to include key pieces of rational information that allow the brain to later justify the heart’s intuitive choice. Remember, even when our hearts decide, our brains still want to believe that they are the ones calling the shots.
  3. Last, stay up to date with the individual differences found between consumer subpopulations and their unique perceptions of what constitutes prosocial behavior and goals. Much like our personal lives, the perception of what makes something beautiful (or helpful) often resides in the eye of the beholder.

That’s it for this week! To learn more about consumer psychology (including matters of the emotional heart vs. the rational brain) be sure to give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected].