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Emotion: an important factor driving consumer behaviour

Emotions: an important factor driving consumer behavior

Every day, we make countless decisions. Most of them are small decisions about our day-to-day activities that don’t take much thought. Occasionally there are important choices to be made that take some pondering. How do you make these decisions? You might identify yourself as an intuitive decision maker. Alternatively, perhaps you consider yourself to be very rational. The truth is, emotions play an important role in everybody’s decisions, often without us even realising. Do you want to know more about emotions in general? We have devoted a deep-dive into the emotions in our brain, which you can find here!

With every choice we make, our brain considers the available options. It needs to evaluate which options are good, bad, better, or worse. Moreover, for that, it takes into account how we feel about the expected outcomes. Good vibes? Go for it. Bad vibes? Best avoid it.

The crucial thing to note here is that the brain isn’t very rigid when it comes to these evaluations. We are very susceptible to emotional influences, which can change our decision making. Here is where it becomes interesting for marketers. What if you could use emotions to strike a chord with your audience? Could that turn them into customers? The short answer is yes. Let’s see how that works.

Every emotion can be a marketing tool

So let’s get emotional. Spreading some good vibes sounds great. How do we get them across? One powerful emotional tool that we can use is a smile. Seeing a happy face unconsciously triggers positive thoughts and feelings, and those, in turn, influence our choices. It’s not surprising therefore that we see that “Colgate smile” in advertisements everywhere. They don’t only help to sell toothpaste! However, let’s not forget about all the other emotions that can be a source of influence. Think of pride, hope, love, surprise. Also, even sadness, fear, anger, shame, and guilt. Every one of these emotions has the potential to be a marketing tool.

To understand how emotions can work in your favour, you need to know the following: emotions are multidimensional feelings. In other words, they are more complicated than they seem. Each emotion is made up of six cognitive “building blocks”, called appraisals: self-accountability, pleasantness, certainty, anticipated effort, attention and situational control. The appraisals vary in strength for each emotion. So how can we use this psychological knowledge to our advantage? In this blog post, we’ll explore this question for two appraisals: self-accountability and pleasantness.

Taking responsibility

Self-accountability plays an essential role in some emotions, like regret and guilt. In other emotions, like hope and fear, it does not. This information is useful if you want to create a compelling message. In a neuromarketing study, researchers looked for the optimal way to promote the use of sunscreen. One strategy painted the scenario of getting skin cancer, with the purpose of inducing fear. Spoiler: this wasn’t the winning strategy.

You might wonder why. Fear is a robust primitive drive and seems like a convincing motivator. The problem is that fear lacks a sense of self-accountability, so it wasn’t effective in inspiring people to take action to change their habits. Now let’s move on to the winning strategy: triggering feelings of guilt. The researchers made people imagine what their family would feel if they would lose them to skin cancer. Their feelings of guilt came with a strong sense of self-accountability, making it a more powerful motivator to change intentions and behavior.

Why so negative?

The examples we’ve discussed so far have made a jump from feel-good happy smiles to disturbing scenarios that induce fear and guilt. So, with that, we have touched upon the second appraisal: pleasantness. This appraisal sharply divides emotions in a group that is pleasant to experience, and another group that makes us feel uneasy.

Why would we deliberately put thoughts in peoples’ heads that are confronting, or even shocking, and make them feel bad? The thing is, these kinds of negative emotional appeals sometimes are a marketer’s best friend when they want their campaign to make an impact and inspire change. Often, it’s these confronting campaigns that end up going viral due to the intense emotions they evoke.

A powerful impact

An example of this is a campaign from 2014 about road safety, by the New Zealand Transport Agency. The powerful advert shows two cars moments before an imminent high-speed collision. Using a time freeze, both drivers get out of their vehicles and consider their actions leading up to the crash. The guilt, fear, and sadness building up toward the accident are tangible, giving their message a powerful impact. Did you notice that this campaign is also an excellent example of tapping into people’s feelings of self-accountability? Again, it’s the guilt motive that did the trick here.

Avoid bad vibes

Viral success stories like this one might make you feel that negative emotions are the way to go. They come with potential downsides, however. For one, trying to make people feel guilt or shame comes with the risk of stepping on toes. When people feel confronted with their bad behavior, they can respond defensively, dismiss your message, and your campaign could end up backfiring.

What’s more, having your brand associated with a negative emotion can be hurtful further down the road. Remember what the brain thinks of bad vibes – best avoid it. A negative emotional approach is therefore ideally suited to make people avoid certain behaviors and events. If you aim to build loyalty to your brand, a positive strategy is usually more advisable. So those happy smiles and beach scenes that you typically see in sunscreen commercials are probably still the best way to go.

Are you inspiring your customers to take action? Do you spread positive vibes on your social media? Come back soon to read the second part of the role of emotion in neuromarketing and find out how the other appraisals can help you motivate your customers.

Want to know more about the unique way your business could use emotional cues and other neuromarketing strategies to strike a chord with your customers? Expert advice can help you make the most out of your marketing efforts. We offer a free online training called Brain & Behaviour for Growth.

If you want to learn more about behavioral insights, read our blog or watch 100+ videos on our YouTube channel!

About Neurofied

Neurofied is a behavioral science company specialized in training, consulting, and change management. We help organizations drive evidence-based and human-centric change with insights and interventions from behavioral psychology and neuroscience. Consider us your behavioral business partner who helps you build behavioral change capabilities internally.

Since 2018, we have trained thousands of professionals and worked with over 100 management, HR, growth, and innovation teams of organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, Deloitte, Novo Nordisk, ABN AMRO, and the Dutch government. We are also frequent speakers at universities and conferences.

Our mission is to democratize the value of behavioral science for teams and organizations. If you see any opportunities to collaborate, please contact us here.


Achar C., So J., Agrawal N., Duhackek A. What we feel and why we buy: the influence of emotions on consumer decision-making (2016). Curr Opin Psychol; 10: 166-170.

Phelps E.A., Lempert K.M., Sokol-Hessner P. Emotion and Decision Making: Multiple Modulatory Neural Circuits (2014). Annu Rev Neurosci; 37: 263-287.

Passyn K, Sujan M. Self-accountability emotions and fear appeals: motivating behavior (2006). J Cons Res; 32: 583-589.


Denise Janssen

Untangles complex neuromarketing topics to build digestible & useful content