The Psychology of Decisions — Briefly
You must understand the criteria for judgement if you are to understand the
If you are to make a decision, you must have criteria. In the broad, sweeping
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
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
Damasio further divides emotions into three categories:
- Background emotions — which I'm going to leave up to you to explore in his
- 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
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
And you can maximize your marketing ROI.
* Looking for Spinoza, 2003, Antonio Damasio, Harcourt, Inc.