Emotions and the Choice Funnel

Behavioral economics evolved as some economists began to probe why people aren’t actually rational economic actors–why they make decisions that go against logic and their own best interests. One of the answers is that our brains operate with two systems, the hot and the cold (or, if you prefer, Systems 2 and 1).

The hot system is the evolution of our lizard brain and provides an immediate, visceral, emotional reaction to the world. The cold system is our logic center, and takes a bit longer to kick in. Even though it’s a matter of microseconds, by the time rational thought begins we may have already formed a gut opinion on something thanks to fast-acting System 2.

So what’s the upshot of how the hot and cold systems work together? One is that the most effective persuasion will touch the heart as well as the mind; better yet, it will touch the heart before the mind. This may be one reason why stories are compelling persuasive tools, because they are much easier to connect with emotionally than facts. Another upshot is that when we don’t act in our own rational best interest, such as saving enough money for retirement, there are often emotional reasons, such as wanting to have something nice now.

A third upshot was suggested in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.  Haidt suggested that emotion serves as a filter that allows us to winnow down the universe of choices in front of us. Rather than logically evaluating each option, we can rule out ones that pique negative reactions and favor ones that bring positive feelings. If you think about choice as a funnel, where first we become aware of options, then we evaluate them, then we select one, emotion becomes like a choke point in the process that weeds out less desirable choices.

This makes sense in terms of evolution, too; if people have pre-programmed visceral reactions to potentially harmful situations, they will be more likely to avoid them and stay safe.

I also wonder what role emotions play in choice overload. Consider Sheena Iyengar’s work, where she found that offering people more choices actually decreases the likelihood they’ll take action on any of them. Might it be that anxiety about many choices disrupts the actual choice-making process?

The important takeaway is that as designers and coaches, we need to consider the emotional as well as the cognitive in the interventions we create. “Making sense” isn’t enough; we also need to appeal to people on a more basic level.