Persuasive UX: The Role of Emotions in Decision Making

Being a human means that our biology affects our behavior. As I mentioned in my past articles Persuasive UX Design: How To Get Users To Do Stuff Part 1 and Part 2, 90% of our thoughts are unconscious. This mysterious unconscious mind responds best to a very simple language that includes danger, food, sex, the feeling of belonging, and strong emotions like joy and anger.

Antoine Bechara, an expert in neuroscience and professor of psychology, has studied and proven that you can’t make any decisions without your emotions. Yes, even you left-brained analytical-thinking people (BTW — the right & left brain stereotype thing doesn’t exist — hate to burst your bubble) use your emotions for every single decision that you make.

So what does that mean? Knowing that our subconscious is more powerful than our conscious mind when creating an experience we have to pay more intention to what emotion we’re emitting and make sure it aligns with what the users are intuitively picking up. In order to do so, we need to understand emotions, how they are triggered and what referrals they evoke.

Emotion Types

There are two types of emotions that affect our decision making: integral, and incidental emotions.

Integral emotions are feelings that we have about a situation that directly affect our decisions. For example, the fact that Everlane is transparent about their process and pricing aims to encourage a user’s decision to buy from them.

Incidental emotions are when we have feelings about something else that has happened during our day/week/life that spills over into a new situation and affects our decisions. An example of this could be that we had to deal with a stressful situation at work and at the end of the day, we go on a shopping spree to make ourselves feel temporarily better.

Though we do not have control over incidental emotions, we do have control over integral emotions. Some brands, like Patagonia or Everlane, do an excellent job in marking their territory with high-quality products while also being socially and environmentally responsible. It is recommended to pull on people’s heartstrings, but by doing so in ways that users can identify with and acknowledge value.

Physical Reactions

As I also mentioned in a past article, Persuasive UX Design: Making Intuitive Decisions, making a decision (whether goal-oriented or habit-based) is an unconscious process that is a result of a single neuron firing. Our physical bodies react before our conscious mind knows that a decision is made. For example, our eyes dilate — and they dilate even more when we go against a personal belief or understanding. Or, here’s another strong illustrative example from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink:

“Imagine that I were to ask you to play a very simple gambling game. In front of you are four decks of cards — two of them red and the other two blue. Each card in those four decks either wins you a sum of money or costs you some money, and your job is to turn over cards from any of the decks, one at a time, in such a way that maximizes your winnings. What you don’t know at the beginning, however, is that the red decks are a minefield…. You can win only by taking cards from the blue decks… The question is how long will it take you to figure this out?

A group of scientists at the University of Iowa did this experiment a few years ago, and what they found is that after we’ve turned over about fifty cards, most of us start to develop a hunch about what’s going on. We don’t know why we prefer the blue decks, but we’re pretty sure, at that point, that they are a better bet. After turning over about eighty cards, most of us have figured the game out and can explain exactly why the first two decks are such a bad idea. But the Iowa scientists did something else, and this is where the strange part of the experiment begins. They hooked each gambler up to a polygraph — a lie detector machine — that measured the activity of the sweat glands that all of us have below the skin in the palms of our hands. Most sweat glands respond to temperature, but those in our palms open up in response to stress — which is why we get clammy hands when we are nervous. What the Iowa scientists found is that gamblers started generating stress responses to red decks by the tenth card, forty cards before they were able to say that they had a hunch about what was wrong with those two decks. More importantly, right around the time their palms started sweating, their behavior began to change as well. They started [unconsciously] favoring the good decks.”

This experiment is a fascinating look into the power of the subconscious and what happens to us before we can make sense of any decisions. It is also a great example of how we should listen to our body when making decisions. A study was done in 2011 by Joseph A. Mikels about the benefits of emotion-focused decision making, and came to the conclusion that we do make the best decisions when we listen to our intuition (gut feeling, inner knowing, whatever you want to call it). The reasoning for this is because our intuition is connected to our subconscious, and sometimes we just can’t explain why, but we just know what feels right and what feels wrong.

Taking Risks

When we feel certain emotions, our mind and bodies intuitively react in a very specific way. When we have a sense of fear or anxiety, we are less inclined to take risks, and when we feel angry are more likely to make bold decisions. In a state of sadness, we engage in riskier behaviour than would if we were in a neutral state of mind. In the long term, we feel more regretful about missed opportunities or decisions that we didn’t make. The fear of loss has a stronger and longer lasting hold on us than any possibility of gain. serves as a great example of stimulating emotions and getting users in the habit of creating change. By triggering specific emotions (or a combination of them) and capturing users with their stories, we can almost guarantee the success of a petition.


When under specific amounts of stress, we go into a fight or flight tunnel-vision-like state. Our minds run through the same steps over and over again, hoping out of desperation that a new solution will arise. Our minds also are only able to make habit based decisions, the type of decisions that is so habitual that you might not even realize that you’re doing it.

Some online experiences and examples of this would be a last-minute deal website, having a countdown timer once you’ve added an item to your cart, or including any types of language that revolves around items selling out quickly. has small pop-ups in the corner of the screen that informs the user how many other people are looking at similar flights, as well as a message about the flights on that date are selling out quickly. This creates a sense of added stress and urgency. If the user is serious about their purchase, this simple yet effective tactic is going to motivate them to buy and get to checkout as quickly as possible. Especially if the user knows that it’s a good deal.

Wrap up

What we’ve learned today is that without our emotions, we do not function, period. Nothing would happen or get done. So as UX specialists, what we can do now is use our knowledge about emotions (in a sincere and non-manipulative way) to create supportive, engaging and empathetic environments, products and services. We need to change our perception that our “uncontrollable” emotions are always working against us, and that they are guiding us for the better.

Aloha! I’m Beckii Adel, UX Designer at Dynamo. If you liked what you saw here, please recommend this article and follow me for more. Thank you for reading! If you have any thoughts or questions, I encourage you to reach out or leave a comment below.

Like what you read? Give Beckii Adel a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.