Do Consumer Emotions Cause Consumer Behavior? Not in the Way You Might Think
Conscious emotional states influence behavior as a function of learning and anticipation, not direct causation
There is a traditional model of emotion and behavior that says conscious emotion is a direct cause of behavior. This model has dominated thinking about emotion at least since the days of the ancient Greeks.
At first glance, it seems to make perfect sense. Don’t emotions make us act? If we get angry, we attack our foe. If we experience fear, we freeze or run away. If we feel love, we want to embrace our beloved. But a closer examination reveals flaws in this simple characterization.
Direct emotional causation of behavior certainly makes sense for animals that lack the sophisticated cognitive capabilities of humans. A reptile or lower mammal, for example, might exhibit many built-in reactions to significant events in the course of surviving and/or maintaining well-being that could be interpreted as direct emotional reactions — responses to danger, to the presence of a potential mate, or to the presence of food or drink when hungry or thirsty, for example.¹
Evolutionary biologists speculate that emotions probably evolved originally for the purpose of directly controlling survival-enhancing behaviors.²
But humans benefit from a more evolved brain that enables us not merely to react to emotions, but to stop, think, and plan what we want to do about them. Because humans have an advanced capacity for self-consciousness and self-regulation, we are not always prisoners of our emotions. We can’t control having them, but we can manage how we respond to them, at least to some extent.
Once we acknowledge our uniquely human capacity to decide how to act in response to an emotion, we acknowledge the full array of cognitive machinery that gets activated in between the emotion and the response.
And once we do that, we must leave the “emotion causes behavior” theory behind.
So How Do Emotions Actually Influence Behavior?
One approach that has gained support among brain scientists is called the emotion-as-feedback theory.³ The essence of this theory is simple to state, but its implications for marketing are deep and far-reaching:
Unconscious emotions are for deciding, feelings are for learning.
Viewing the emotion-behavior connection as a feedback system rather than a direct causation system provides marketers and consumers with a much more useful and realistic model of how emotions — both conscious and unconscious — can and do influence consumer choices and actions. This perspective draws upon decades of brain science research to answer one key question: how does emotion help humans survive, adapt, and succeed in the world? It is built on four basic principles:
- The purpose of conscious emotional feelings is not to direct behavior in the moment, but to stimulate thinking, reflection, and learning after an outcome or behavior has occurred.
- The purpose of unconscious emotional associations — also called unconscious affect or affective residue — is to facilitate choice and action in the moment without requiring activation of full-fledged conscious feelings prior to deciding or acting.
- Unconscious emotional associations are automatically derived from conscious emotional experiences through a process of associative learning.
- Over time, what we learn from emotional experiences is to anticipate future emotional outcomes and behave so as to pursue the emotions we prefer.
If marketers want to understand how emotions contribute to consumer behavior, they need to look not just at the conscious — and therefore self-reportable — emotions consumers say accompany their exposures to marketing, but also at what consumers learn as a consequence of their emotional interactions with products, brands, and marketing communications.
The purpose of conscious emotion is to stimulate thinking and learning after an emotional experience has occurred
According to the emotion-as-feedback theory, conscious feelings are for learning. Empirical research on the activation of conscious emotion provides two insights into why this makes sense: conscious emotions form relatively slowly and they tend to form after, not during, the experiences that trigger them.
First, conscious feelings do not unfold fast enough to play a role in many choice and action situations. Even the cognitive act of diagnosing how we feel, separate from “simply reacting” as part of a decision process, takes more time and effort than a rapidly unfolding choice situation may allow, or deserve.
This is why evolution has equipped the modern human brain with dedicated “rapid response” circuitry that enables behavior to be activated without required full-blown conscious deliberation and analysis.⁴
Second, most conscious feelings occur following an emotion-inducing experience, not during the experience itself. This is true for both negative and positive feelings. Recall situations in which you have felt anger, resentment, or fear.
Often, the conscious emotion only occurred after the incident that triggered it — for example, the “slow burn” of anger that follows a perceived insult, or the resentment that festers after being slighted, or the fear that grips you only after you have successfully maneuvered your vehicle to avoid a crash. Positive emotions often become most intense after the fact as well.
This view does not deny that conscious feelings sometimes precede and cause behavior directly. But such instances tend to be sporadic and often counterproductive — an insight that is reflected in many folk wisdom adages about acting without thinking, such as “look before you leap” and “never reply to an email when you’re angry.”
The point is not that conscious emotion never causes behavior, but that “it operates mainly and best by means of its influence on cognitive processes, which in turn are input into decision and behavior regulation processes.”⁵
The purpose of unconscious affect is to guide choice and action in the moment
Unconscious affect, according to the emotion-as-feedback theory, is for deciding and acting. This conclusion is derived from a large body of research detailing how unconscious affect can subtly guide our choices and actions, all without requiring that we expend costly conscious cognitive effort in the process.
Unconscious affect impacts behavior through the activation of approach and withdrawal motivation in the brain.⁶ An important aspect of this impact is that it is not very specific. Rather, the dominant element in unconscious affect is its diffuse positive or negative valence.
Unconscious affect does not contain specific information about how to act, it simply evokes an approach or withdrawal reaction based on positive or negative associations with prior experiences in similar situations.
The main lesson for marketers is that the influence of unconscious affect on consumer behavior will most likely be more nonspecific and diffuse than they might wish it to be.
Because unconscious emotional associations contain little specific information, they cannot be precisely targeted. Rather than motivating consumers to seek out a particular product or brand, they are more likely to create a more general motivation to satisfy a more general want or need.
Food advertising on TV, for example, is more likely to trigger a broad goal to eat, which can be satisfied in the short term by whatever is in the pantry, rather than a more specific goal to buy the advertised product on the viewer’s next grocery-shopping trip.⁷
Unconscious emotional associations are derived from conscious emotional experiences via associative learning
Implicit learning is the crucial unconscious process by which our brains make connections between all kinds of things and events we experience in our lives, including marketing messages, products, and brands.
Through repetition and conditioning, implicit learning enables our System 1 mental machinery to link together just about any two things that co-occur in time or space. Later, when one element of the association is experienced as a prime, associative activation searches memory and brings to mind its counterpart.
One function our brains perform below conscious awareness is to take lessons we have learned or acquired consciously and automatize them — that is, encode them so they can be executed automatically without conscious intervention. This is how we acquire skills in general.⁸ Emotion-as-feedback theory suggests a specifically emotional version of this general automization process:
Conscious emotion leaves an affective residue associated with the memory of the situation and behavior that produced the emotion, and when a similar opportunity arises in the future, the affect can be automatically activated (“lying is bad”) so as to guide behavior.⁹
What gets automatized through learning is not the full-fledged emotional experience, but the affective residue from that experience, which is essentially encoded as simple valence — an answer to the question, “do I want to have that emotion again, right now?”
For marketers, this model of how conscious emotional events get converted into unconscious emotional associations and then, by activating motivational processes, impact choices and actions, necessitates a radical rethinking of how emotions influence consumer behavior.
Rather than focusing on fine-tuning consumers’ conscious emotional responses to marketing messages, marketers should focus on monitoring and understanding the simple affective residue produced by every interaction consumers have across every touchpoint with their products and brands.
It is the conscious emotional after-effects of these interactions, not the emotions spontaneously induced by puppy dogs or dancing babies in Super Bowl ads, that matter in building a strong intuitive relationship between a brand and its consumers.
Anticipating emotional outcomes of future actions is the main way emotional learning influences behavior
We have seen how we learn from emotional experiences. What exactly do we learn? Here are three takeaways.
First, we learn that emotions can be signals that tell us how we’re doing and what we should do next. Feeling a negative emotional outcome (anger, shame, guilt) can stimulate counterfactual thinking (what-if speculation) about how we could have gotten better results if we had acted differently.
Conversely, feeling a positive emotional outcome (joy, elation, pride) can stimulate us to strategize and plan how to get into future situations to produce those emotions again. In this way, our brains learn to recognize if-then rules for relationships in the emotional realm, encoding lessons we can draw upon later, both consciously and unconsciously, to shape our behaviors in favor of pursuing emotionally preferable goals.
Second, because emotions are beyond our direct control (we cannot choose not to have an emotion), we learn that they create a kind of predictability. If we repeat an action that triggered a particular emotion in the past, we expect it to trigger that same emotion in the future. In other words, we learn to anticipate the emotional repercussions of our behavior.
Third, we learn to make better choices. Our ability to anticipate emotional consequences makes us more likely to pursue actions that make us feel good and avoid actions that make us feel bad. In this way, the anticipation of emotion — based on learning across multiple life experiences — becomes more important than the emotion produced by a single experience.
Immediate emotional responses provide feedback about actions just performed, but the greater value of this feedback is to help us learn how to act in the future. Anticipating emotional outcomes can help us make better decisions based on deeper experience, increasing our chances of getting better outcomes tomorrow than we got yesterday.
Rethinking the Role of Emotion in Marketing
Marketers need to understand not just what emotions consumers are having while experiencing marketing messages, but also how those emotional experiences are influencing what they are learning about products and brands, and how those emotion-based lessons are impacting what they are doing in the marketplace.
Once the role of emotion in consumer choice and behavior is properly identified as a feedback system, the emotions consumers feel during marketing exposure become less important than the emotional and motivational outcomes consumers anticipate regarding future experiences with the product.
Stephen Genco is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. In 2006, he founded one of the first neuromarketing research firms, and from 2009 to 2012 he was Chief Innovation Officer at one of the largest. He is currently Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting, helping clients develop and execute marketing programs and business strategies that leverage the latest advances in brain science.