The Psychology of Decisions — Briefly

You must understand the criteria for judgement if you are to understand the decision.

If you are to make a decision, you must have criteria. In the broad, sweeping sense, the criteria usually point to a better future. In fact, all criteria for decisions are about the future. Unfortunately, even those making decisions are not clear about their criteria:

  • Criteria often change over the course of the decision process
  • Criteria may be emotional and subconscious

You are blessed with two decision making processes, one rational and conscious and the other emotional and unconscious. They both are involved in all decisions and often influence each other. First a few comments about the rational: The process is entirely conscious It is not necessarily logically rigorous or correct, just reasoned in that when asked, you can answer as to why.

Marketing has generally focused most energy on the rational decision process with only a superficial analysis of the emotional. However, psychologists have focused on the emotional as the more powerful. Much of this has come from recent studies in cognitive neuroscience aided by fMRI — functional magnetic resonance imaging. This tool allows psychologists to view neural activity as it happens. This tool and related studies of people with brain injuries has dramatically changed psychology over the past 15 years.

Emotions and Decisions

Antonio Damasio, in his book, "Looking for Spinoza,*" has detailed the underlying drivers of the decisions your body makes and diagrams them as follows:

He sees basic body functions such as the regulation of your breathing and heart rate at the very base. Above that, he positions pain and pleasure behaviors such as the pain from touching a hot burner. And above that are the basic drives and motivations such as hunger, thirst, sex, and curiosity. With each step up the ladder, the mechanism for making a decision becomes more complex. Looked at from an evolutionary view, with each step up the tree, the organism is more intelligent although it is only at the emotional level that we consider the organism showing any intelligence. Emotions and the feelings they inspire are at the top of the tree.

Damasio further divides emotions into three categories:

  • Background emotions — which I'm going to leave up to you to explore in his book
  • Primary emotions — Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Surprise and Sadness
  • Social emotions — of which there are many, including shame, embarrassment, pride, jealousy, admiration to name a few

These emotions are critical to your decision process. And with every decision you make, the results elicit an emotion. From birth, you have built up a storehouse of knowledge based on your experiences. While you tend to think of the rational lessons you've learned, each experience has been accompanied by emotional learning.

As you rationally weigh the pros and cons of a decision, your mind is projecting the possible alternatives of that decision into the future and comparing the anticipated result to past lessons. Will this alternative make you happy, angry, sad? This is all going on subconsciously. This is your gut talking.

Here is why this is important to marketing. When your gut talks the rest of your mind tends to follow. We have numerous instances where the rational reason to purchase a new product seemed unassailable, particularly when viewed against the background of stated values. But the product did not strike a positive emotional cord, in fact eliciting negative emotions. And the product failed.

When you do have an accurate understanding of the underlying emotional aspect of a particularly purchase, you are able to align your marketing efforts so that your tactics are efficiently on target.

Your sales cycle is short, sometimes extraordinarily short.

You can understand the relative utility and importance of the many tactical activities.

And you can maximize your marketing ROI.

* Looking for Spinoza, 2003, Antonio Damasio, Harcourt, Inc.