This is my first in a series of five blog articles that address how specific aspects of emotion impact consumer behavior. I start with one of the more basic aspects, and one that I’ve written about, spoken about, and work to address in my research. For some of you, this will be a redundant review (so forgive me). For others, it may be a refreshing new insight. Mostly for the latter group, please know that…
What does this mean, really? It’s pretty simple. Much “emotional processing” occurs without our awareness. By emotional processing I mean how the neurochemical systems devoted to emotion in our bodies – most importantly our brains’ – react to stimuli in our external and internal environment. I don’t want to turn this into a neuroscience review, but I’m talking about what happens in…
- Sensory components (e.g., seeing, hearing, and touching);
- Brain components in what’s referred to as the limbic system (e.g., the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus) and various cortical areas (e.g., the orbito frontal and insular cortices); and…
- Peripheral “biometric” components (e.g., breathing, heart rate, and skin conductance).
(If you’re interested in this area, you can search for authors such as Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazzaniga, Jaak Panksepp, Mark Solms, or Joseph LeDoux.)
When these systems react, they do so with the goal of guiding our decisions and behavior toward solutions that will optimize our well-being, be it at the most basic level of survival or just making sure we ultimately “feel” as good as we can. The point of this article is that this “emotional influence” can and does happen without us even knowing it. And that’s important because in order to fully understand why people do what they do, why they buy what they buy, we should use methods to assess these unconscious emotional influences.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we’re never aware of what our true feelings are and how they’re affecting our decisions and behavior. We can be and are. However, often we’re fooled about what’s influencing us or we don’t want to admit emotional truths. So to get the full picture, we need comprehensive (i.e., implicit and explicit) emotional assessment.
Many studies demonstrate that emotions can and do operate unconsciously to affect our behavior. I’m sure the numbers are in the hundreds, if not the thousands. I’ll cite three.
Supporting Study 1: Subliminal Priming Drives Beverage Choice. In a research setting, Winkielman, Berridge, and Wilbarger (2005) measured how much of a certain beverage thirsty respondents drank and how much they said they were willing to pay for that beverage. However, before they took these measurements, they subliminally (i.e., below levels of awareness) exposed half of these respondents to pictures of happy faces and the other half to pictures of angry faces. In pre-tests, these faces were proven to evoke positive (the happy faces) or negative (the angry faces) feelings. These researchers found that respondents that had been exposed to happy faces drank more of the beverage and said they would pay more for it than respondents who had been exposed to angry faces. This was consistent with much other research showing that “goal-directed” people (in this study operationally defined as “thirsty”) more readily engage in, and are more positive toward, action that fulfills their goal when they are in good moods vs. bad moods. Since the only difference between these two groups of respondents was their subliminal exposure to the happy or angry faces, and since explicit self-reports of how they were feeling were no different between the two groups, the research showed that the unconscious emotional manipulation was what caused the differences in the amount drunk and how much they would be willing to pay for the beverage.
Supporting Study 2: Choosing Dasani Bottled Water. Drawing upon Robert Zajonc’s classic work demonstrating that mere exposure to (vs. conscious deliberation of) a previously neutral stimulus is all that’s needed to develop an increased liking for it (liking being a positive feeling), Ferraro, Bettman, and Chartrand (2005) investigated whether increasing incidental exposure of a brand of water (Dasani) could unconsciously increase choice of that brand. Showing respondents photos of people engaged in everyday activities, the researchers varied the number of photos that contained Dasani bottled water embedded within the photos. (Note: The respondents did not know that choosing bottled water was the purpose of the research.) Allowing respondents to choose different bottles of water as a ‘thank you’ for participating, they found that Dasani was chosen more than the other brands as the number of Dasani exposures were included in the photos. However – and here’s the unconscious connection – this effect only happened for respondents who were not explicitly aware that Dasani was in the photos! The research showed that additional exposures to Dasani led to greater unconscious liking for it and increased choice of it.
Supporting Study 3: Implicit “Loving” for a Frozen Food Brand. Using the Emotional Profiling technique we developed, I and my colleague, Keith Payne, recently investigated the Emotional Profile of a frozen food brand. Based on well-founded social/cognitive psychology methods, the technique measures how targeted respondents feel both ‘implicitly’ (i.e., without deliberate reflection) and ‘explicitly’ (i.e. with deliberate reflection) about the targeted object, in this case a frozen food brand. When we examined which of the emotions (both implicit and explicit) in the brand’s profile most predicted share of purchase for that brand, we found that only feeling implicitly loving toward the brand significantly predicted this important outcome measure. None of the emotions explicitly “felt” toward the brand had a significant impact on its share of purchase.
Most people, including marketers and marketing researchers, have a hard time believing that unless a consumer feels a certain feeling and can tell us about it, then it must not be affecting his or her behavior. But the truth is that this isn’t always the case. Emotions work “surreptitiously” to affect their behavior. So, as I always do, I recommend always building ways to assess emotions’ ‘implicit’ (as well as explicit) impact on targeted consumer behavior.
So much for the first in this series. Subsequent articles will discuss…
- How stronger emotional associations improve sensory processes.
- How emotional associations affect cognitive strategies – ways in which we think about things.
- How cognitive load affects emotions’ impact on behavior.
- How different methods of “emotional conditioning” affect preference for a brand or product.
Until next time…