What is the purpose of emotion? (Part 2)

In Western post-industrial societies, emotion has taken a backseat, been relegated to the sidelines. It’s considered inconvenient, embarrassing, distracting. Intellect, order, and action rule the roost. During our waking hours, we’re taught to think and act, but to reserve emotion for special occasions, such as births, weddings, funerals, the occasional daubing of a tear during a sad movie (preferably in the darkness of a theatre). And this has made us tone deaf and colour blind to emotion. And that’s not a good thing.

Why is it important to feel and to understand emotions? And more importantly, is emotion really essential at all? In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman summarizes a considerable body of research that concludes that without emotion, in conjunction with the rational function of the human mind, key decisions that affect one’s survival are severely hampered. Let’s say you’re one of our ancestors, a Paleolithic human, who hunts with stone arrowheads affixed to spears. You are suddenly confronted by a tiger, and your life depends on how you react in the next few moments. It is the interaction of the emotional and rational parts of the brain that result in both the speed, the power, and effectiveness of your response. With your emotional response turned off, you might determine the right course of action, but your reaction time and the force of your bodily movements (the spear coming down hard on the tiger’s head as it lunges) would be too slow to save you. You’d be dead, or at least mauled beyond recognition.

Now that I’ve made the case for the role of emotion in critical moments (however gruesomely), how does it apply to advertising and marketing? Well here, we’re far more inclined to use emotion deliberately, as it’s the holy grail of advertising to inspire emotion and action. Study after study shows that the reasons behind why people choose one brand over another – especially as the commitment of money or energy increases – are more than 50% emotional across the board.

Why am I obsessed with Audi as a car brand, or unwilling to consider a brand of laptop other than a Macbook? Why can most people not even explain why Tide is synonymous with laundry detergent when there are many other options that are functionally equivalent? Why are educated and intelligent women all over the world willing to wait for months on waiting lists and pay well over $10,000 to own a Hermes Birkin bag? Because we are emotional beings first and foremost.

Emotions are not an afterthought or a recent add-on to our psychological makeup. They are the foundation upon which the intellect has developed. The classic metaphor of the man riding the elephant holds true:  the rider represents the intellect, the elephant represents the emotions. While the man can influence the elephant, that elephant will eventually have its way. We would be wise to understand the nature of this relationship, and not mistakenly accord too much power to the rider…