When emotion trumps reason: What the President can teach us about decision-making

When we make decisions we tend to think we are acting rationally, logically stacking up pros and cons on an imaginary tally sheet and basing our choice on whichever comes out on top. However, while it may seem surprising, research tells us that this is simply not the case. The majority of the time we are actually relying on instinct and emotion when we make the myriad of choices we face every day.

The research also shows that emotion, rather than purely rational or logical decision-making, carries a lot of weight when it comes to customer experience. In fact, emotion is thought to count for over 50% of an overall experience with a company, and 75% of the decision to purchase is based on how a customer feels, as opposed to the cold, hard facts.

With this in mind, it’s clear that invoking emotion is the next battleground when it comes to crafting customer experience. And there’s no better example of just how this battle is played out than with the new President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Trump appeals to the instinctive and emotional aspect of people’s thinking, and his success tells us a lot about how people make decisions. He recognises that what fans the flames of passion in his followers isn’t facts or numbers, but ideas and ideals that appeal to their existing values and beliefs. He taps into how his constituency feels about issues, and as a result news grabs and soundbites from Trump supporters tend to have a common theme: “He says what we are thinking”, or “He tells it like it is”, and of course the ever present — “He just gets us”.

Trump doesn’t talk policy, he talks about “strength” and “toughness”. He labels his opponents as “losers” and deals as “dumb”. His followers feel that he understands them because his rhetoric sounds like the emotional voice in their own heads. He knows it’s easier both for people to operate emotionally rather than rationally and for him to appeal to their emotions rather than reason.

He knows.

Behavioural Economics uses the concept of mental ‘systems’ to represent the two sides of this struggle. ‘System One’ represents our faster, automatic instinct — the emotional conclusions we jump to immediately when faced with a decision — and ‘System Two’, a slower, methodical and logical processing of information, that controlled decision-making we use when we really take the time to ruminate on all the facts and figures in a given situation.
 We might think we make most of our decisions from that slower, collected and controlled rational mind, but Psychologists believe this is not the case at all — they put forward the idea that people make the majority of their judgements based on the instinctual and reactive mind of System One, perhaps because we are simply unable to analyse each and every aspect of each judgement in detail.

The dependence we all exhibit on emotional instinct is natural and effective, but it pays to be aware of how certain exploits can take advantage of this process, exploits utilised by all politicians, Trump perhaps more than others. What we can learn from their approach is simply that for all the appeal of facts and data-driven decision making, even when we truly believe we are approaching decisions from the wheelhouse of rationality, other factors are equally if not more important.

So why is this the case? It could be because active reasoning and traversing logic is mentally tiring. What we can take from this notion is that in any communication process, due weight should always be given to emotional elements like trust and excitement, and the capacity of facts and figures to influence the decision-making process should also be balanced against their facility to overwhelm a person’s processing capacity, and therefore lose their intended impact.

People who understand just how much more we are driven by emotion than rationality, like Trump, use this understanding to great success. Trump knows that our reasoning is often no more than a justification for a decision made on primitive impulse. In all things, including decisions from small to large and complex (perhaps especially for large and complex decisions, like choosing a President) if you can appeal to someone’s instincts and emotions, they will probably add the reasoning and logic for you.