What is the purpose of emotion? (Part 1)

I walked into a restaurant the other day with a group of friends, a very hip new place known for its excellent Spanish-influenced food, handsome wait staff and creative cocktails. It was a birthday dinner for a good friend, and we were all in a jovial mood. It was a Monday night, so we expected the place to be quiet, but as it turned out, there were several celebrations going on and it was a full house. No matter, this just made for a more festive mood.

As the dinner progressed, it became clear that the staff was overwhelmed with the turnout and could not attend to us properly. We waited 15 to 20 minutes for drinks, had to remind the servers repeatedly about our orders, and generally had to work quite hard to get service. As the organizer of the event, I could feel the anger starting to build within me, and so could a few of my very perceptive friends, who winked knowingly at each other over their proseccos. Finally, when I had reached my limit, I catapulted out of my chair to go speak with the manager and set things right. The poor manager got an earful. He listened attentively, was genuinely sorry, and did his best to make it right by offering free dessert, etc. All was made right, eventually.

What surprised me was the vehemence of my emotions. Even though I was recovering from a flu and was far more ‘low key’ than I normally am (I am not a low key person, by all accounts), the feelings were powerful enough to bring out the lion in me. As I reflected upon the incident, I was reminded of a statement from a psychologist I once worked with:  “Emotions tell you what is important to you. They provide crucial information.”

While it may seem more convenient to go through life without the tides and storms of emotions to contend with, one must also contemplate how flat and uneventful life would be without emotion. It would be like living in a place that had no changes in weather – like Los Angeles. And perhaps more to the point (and what my psychologist friend was trying to convey) is the insight that emotions give us powerful, unmistakeable clues as to what our most deeply held values, dreams and preferences are. If I didn’t care deeply about my friends being well served and our guest of honour having the perfect birthday experience, I would not have been angry. In fact, I wouldn’t have felt much of anything.

Until the last few decades, over 100 years of psychological research focused on studying cognition – mental or rational process. Even studies of human emotion were often one step removed from directly studying emotion (or feeling) itself. But more recently, a new emphasis on emotions and feelings has emerged, ushered in by seminal books like Daniel Goleman’s brilliant Emotional Intelligence. In future posts, we’ll be exploring various aspects of emotional intelligence research and relating it to marketing and consumer behaviour. After all, we’re in the business of understanding how emotions and psychological needs can and do govern behaviours, and of using that information intelligently, to earn the attention of our audiences.