To change what someone does, you need to change what they feel

Just ask a scientist.

Mike Troiano
Jun 21 · 4 min read

ogito, ergo, sum.” I think, therefore I am.

Since Descartes first published his philosophical proof of human existence in 1637, science has often overlooked emotion as the real engine of human behavior. Even modern neuroscience has tended, until recently, to concentrate on the cognitive aspects of brain function, disregarding the important role of emotion in the way we make decisions. This began to change in academic circles in 1995 with the publication of Descartes’ Error, by famed Portugese Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

Damasio challenged traditional ideas about the connection between emotion and rationality, taking readers on a journey of scientific discovery through a series of rigorously documented case studies and experiments. Among the most remarkable was one of seemingly normal people with a very particular form of brain damage that made them unable to experience emotion. The condition was sometimes related to an illness, but more often to a physical injury in a part of the brain that made it impossible to feel. Yes, there are people like that in the world, and yes, you may have dated one.

All kidding aside, think about these folks for a minute. What would it be like to navigate the world without feelings? You can easily imagine the challenges of doing so, of course… of building relationships, raising children, even functioning in business. But if there was a silver lining to it, you’d think these people would at least make good decisions more often than you or I.

An “emotional decision” is usually code for a bad decision. Buying those Doritos in the checkout line was “an emotional decision,” as was telling your cousin to fuck off at that graduation party a few years back, and drunk texting your ex late Thursday night. Liberated from the tyranny of their emotions, you’d think the people in Damasio’s study would at least make great decisions, even if in doing so they might sometimes alienate others.

In fact, the opposite was true. It was near impossible for these people to make any decisions, even the simplest and least consequential. If you put a red pencil and a blue pencil on the table in front of these poor souls, then asked them to choose one, they’d sit there, frozen, all day, agonizing over what to do.

Through this and other experiments, Damasio came to believe that our emotions had evolved as a kind of short cut to navigating the world.

Think about two of our ancestors, out on the African savannah. Both see a fearsome cat approaching through the grass, and the first thinks to himself… “Hmmm. Well developed canines, likely a meat eater. Muscular haunches, probably fast moving… oh and look at those fantastic claws,” by which time he gets eaten.

The second says, “Cat! Shit!” and runs for hills, only to procreate another day. In this way nature in her wisdom selected us for emotion, tying it to our actions to protect us from our own expanding intelligence.

The biology of the brain bears this out as well. Our higher intellectual functions live in the cerebral cortex, a relatively recent bolt-on that sits furthest from where the brain connects to the body. The feeling centers, meanwhile, are deep down in the temporal lobe, the ancient lizard brain that makes us hungry, horny, afraid, and connected to one other. It doesn’t take a Portugese Neuroscientist to figure out that’s where you want to touch people, if you’re trying to move them from A to B.

Rationalist.

And indeed, while all this all came as a revelation to the scientific community in the mid-90’s, it was something the community of philosophers and artists had known all along.

Not long after Descartes proclamation, in fact, fellow Frenchman Blaise Pascal had offered,

“The heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing.”

Centuries later, across the English channel, John Stuart Mill said,

“So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it.”

And in 1989, 6 years before Damasio, branding guru Henry M. Boettinger wrote in his book Moving Mountains: The Art and Craft of Letting Others See Things Your Way that

“Emotions and beliefs are masters, reason their servant. Ignore emotion, and reason slumbers; trigger emotion, and reason comes rushing to help.”

What those folks understood — before the scientists and the engineers — was that if you want to change what someone does, you have to change what they feel, and not just what they think.

“Sentio, ergo actus.” I feel, therefore I act.

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