The Great Marketing Debate: Rational Versus Emotional
by Jerry W. Thomas

  • Rational Versus Emotional
    Perhaps nowhere in the marketing domain is our thinking more fuzzy and flawed than the on-going debate between the Rational and the Emotional.
    The phrase “rational versus emotional” (or variations of it) is found in textbooks, articles, and common everyday usage in the marketing and marketing research spheres. And, as with so many other topics, we all tend to copy what others are saying and writing—without stopping to really think about what it all means or implies. All too often in books, magazines, blogs, and conference pronouncements, the assumption is made that “emotions” are non-conscious and all “rational” thinking is conscious. What’s the harm in these presumptions?

Assuming that all emotions are non-conscious can lead us into quicksand. If we assume that consumers can never consciously explain their emotions (as the behavioral economists would have us believe), we are likely to ignore or not give adequate weight to what consumers are trying to tell us. If we assume that all emotions are non-conscious, it might lead us to put our faith in witch doctors or shamans (or neuroscientists, gurus, or soothsayers) to reveal the inner-depths of human emotion that are invisible to ordinary people. If our thinking about emotions is confused, we can easily fall into the “tar pits” of bad thinking and bad decisions. It is true that some of our emotions are non-conscious, and it is true that those non-conscious emotions do affect our thinking and our behavior. We will explore the role of emotions in greater detail momentarily, but let’s first explore rational thinking.

“Rational” is defined as “logical,” as based on “reasoning.” Almost all would agree that rational thinking is a conscious process. We have a problem to solve, and we think about it consciously and come up with a solution. But is rational thinking exclusively a conscious activity? Let’s suppose that you are trying to solve a difficult mathematical problem, engineering problem, or statistical problem (all rational endeavors, you would likely agree). You may be stumped for quite a while and decide to work on other tasks, when suddenly the solution or a strategy to a solution pops into your conscious mind. The non-conscious parts of your brain have given you the solution, or the key to the solution, and you weren’t even aware that your non-conscious brain was still working on the problem. History is replete with examples of mathematical and scientific problems being solved by the answers popping into one’s consciousness, or solutions evolving from dreams, including Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, Niels Bohr’s theory of quantum mechanics, and Mendeleev’s creation of the periodic table of elements. You yourself, have probably experienced this same phenomenon, where a dream or sudden inspiration helped you solve a rational problem. So, rational or logical thinking is both a conscious and a non-conscious process. The non-conscious processes of the human brain are part of the genius and greatness of the human mind. This same pattern of non-conscious processes and influence is evident in human emotions as well.

Emotions may best be defined as “feelings.” Emotions or feelings can be conscious or non-conscious, just like rational thinking. For example, you may feel great joy when you receive a nice compliment from someone. The joy is mostly conscious; you know what your emotional response to the compliment is, and you know the reasons for that “joy” response. You may feel anger at your neighbor because he borrowed and failed to return your lawnmower. You are fully conscious of this anger and know exactly the source of the anger. You may feel fear at the prospect of giving a speech to a large audience. You know exactly what the emotion is, and can talk about it, even though you might not fully understand its underlying origins. These are examples of conscious emotions.

However, at other times you may have a “gut feeling” or gnawing doubts about someone or something that you cannot bring to consciousness or fully explain. We have all experienced these nebulous feelings of unknown origin. Obviously, non-conscious emotions are at work, and we cannot pinpoint the exact causes or sources of the emotions. Dreams are another window into nonconscious emotions, where we experience bizarre stories, plots, characters, images, and symbols (accompanied by strong feelings) that we cannot explain or understand.

So emotions can be conscious and/or nonconscious. Emotions can also be rational or irrational. Anger at your neighbor over the unreturned lawnmower may be perfectly rational. Your fear of speaking to a large audience may be rational, or it may be largely irrational. Your fear of heights may be irrational (i.e., you may have no logical reason to be fearful of heights). You may be fully aware of your fear, but its origin is non-conscious.

Wait a minute, you might argue. Emotions are not conscious because we can’t fully explain where and how they arise or because we don’t fully understand the physiology of emotions. Good points, but the same arguments are true of rational or logical thinking. Virtually all human beings are logical, even small children, even crazy people (it’s typically the premises they reason from that defines them as “crazy,” not the lack of logic). We can’t fully explain the physiology of our rational or logical thinking, but that does not mean that most rational thinking is non-conscious. Let’s try to visualize these interactions by imagining a three-dimensional space (i.e., three axes):

X-axis = Degree of rational or logical thinking (from non-rational to rational)

Y-axis = Degree of a single emotion or feeling, anger, joy, love, etc. (weak to strong emotional feelings)

Z-axis = Degree of consciousness (from non-conscious to conscious)

All of our mental processes are some combination or mixture of these three fundamental variables. Visually, these three variables create a polyhedron or cuboid (think a “rectangular box”). The size of the “box” and its shape (i.e., its dimensions) represent how we think and feel at an instant in time. However, all three variables are in constant flux or agitation, like the electrons inside an atom, so let’s call this imaginary shape a ‘Quantum’ polyhedron or ‘Quantum’ cuboid.

Have we arrived at ultimate reality? Not quite. The truth is much more complex than a simple three-dimensional polyhedron model. The problem is the emotional dimension. No one really knows exactly how many unique emotions dwell in the human brain. Philosophers, poets, priests, and scholars have argued over the number and types of emotions for millennia, but no one really knows. For example, there are more than 100 different types of fear (with proper scientific names) and many types of joy, love, anger, and happiness. It doesn’t really matter how many unique emotions we experience. It is sufficient to acknowledge that human emotions are numerous and exceedingly complex. All of these human emotions are intertwined and comingled; rarely do we ever observe or experience a single emotion all by itself.

If we think of each emotion as represented by its own ‘Quantum’ polyhedron, then our overall mental processes and behaviors can be explained by some comingling or merging of multiple Quantum polyhedrons. Imagine a space with 15 to 20 (or maybe 100) of these Quantum polyhedrons, and assume that each polyhedron can either function independently or merge and function in conjoint with one or more other polyhedrons. This collection of comingled Quantum polyhedrons, as a visual model, leads to a fuller appreciation of the complexity of human thinking, human emotions, and human behavior.

What are the implications for marketers and researchers? Several immediately come to mind:

  1. The human mind and its processes are exceedingly complex. We may never completely understand the mind’s full depths and dimensions, regardless of advances in technology.
  1. Humankind possesses remarkable language capabilities and communication skills. Consumers have this amazing ability to talk and tell us what they are thinking and what they are feeling, and much of human thinking and human emotion is accessible through traditional survey research. We can tap into this extraordinary conscious knowledge and communication capability with all types of surveys. True, people are capable of exaggerating and telling lies, but we’ve known about these tendencies for thousands of years, and we know how to adjust for the distortion, lies, and over-estimation.
  1. Not all human thinking and human emotions are conscious. There are parts of the human brain that we cannot reach with surveys or superficial group discussions. There are questions people cannot answer because of a lack of self-awareness or lack of self-knowledge. Many cultural influences are beyond our awareness and outside our consciousness. Just as the fish is probably not aware of the ocean, we are typically not aware of the cultural ocean in which we swim. There are motives and desires hidden in our brains that we choose to hide, deny, or repress. Qualitative research techniques, in the hands of experienced and perceptive investigators, can help us access these non-conscious or only marginally conscious motives, emotions, and cultural influences. Projective techniques, ethnography, and semiotic techniques can help us shine lights into these obscure areas of the human mind. Neuro-science measurements might also help us at some point in the future, when we better understand what the squiggly graphs mean.
  1. As marketers and researchers, we must integrate knowledge of the conscious and the non-conscious, the rational and the emotional. Maximum value comes from understanding the interactions of these different aspects of the mind, but this understanding takes us only partway to the decision “event horizon.”
  1. Lest we forget, marketing decisions take place amid an economic environment, industry trends, technology changes, competitive forces and influences, corporate goals and aspirations, budgetary constraints, and product-category variables. Understanding human emotions and human rationality, conscious and nonconscious, are only parts of the knowledge base that lead to good marketing decisions. The human brain is an incredible visual and symbolic computer of infinite power and creative brilliance. Let’s pay tribute to its elegance, beauty, and complexity. Let’s not dishonor it with over-simplifications or imprecise characterizations. Let us listen, really listen, to what human brains and human tongues are trying to tell us.

About the Author

Jerry W. Thomas ( is President/CEO of Dallas-Fort Worth based Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.

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