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Emotion v logic in the human brain

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Most people like to think that business is all about logic, and that customers behave having rationally analysed all available data, considered the various pros and cons of different courses of action and come to a logical conclusion.

Although it's very difficult for very logical people to understand (e.g. accountants, engineers, IT professionals), this could not be further from the truth. The reality is that a high percentage of the time people make decisions based purely on emotion. They may well rationalize that decision afterwards by using logic, but the decision itself is made on emotion. Logic plays only a secondary role.

We don't realise this is happening, because rarely think about how our emotions. We just feel them.

You can give a well-prepared, logical presentation backed with a plethora of data, facts, market research, customer focus group results, graphs, pie charts and statistics all pointing to one course of action, only to have your audience say, 'That's all very well, but my gut tells me to do this instead ..." If that has ever happened to you, you know how frustrating it is.

But if it happens, it's your fault.

Why? Because you've only engaged the part of their brains called the neocortex, whilst they have made the decision with their limbic system. Let me explain.

Brain evolution

Our brains have two main parts: the Limbic System (or Core) and the Neocortex. The Core is divided into what neuroscientists call our 'Reptilian Brain' (but which I prefer to call the Lizard Brain because it trips off the tongue easier) and our 'Mammalian Brain. The former is responsible for bodily functions and our surival reflex, the latter houses our emorions. The Limbic System makes decisions very quickly and in a black and white manner. It's motto could be, "Don't bother me with facts and logic, it just gets in the way of my emotions!"

The Neocortex (the bit you probably imagine when you think about a brain; it looks a bit like a huge grey walnut. or the head of a cauliflower) is a much more recent development, in evolutionary terms. It is much bigger in humans than in other animals and is the part that makes us intelligent. If the Core tells us to be afraid because we hear a loud bang, the Cortex will analyse the situation and decide whether we should run away or if the source of the noise is harmless.

In everyday life, an emotional stimulus is normally routed via the Cortex, which analyses it before sending the appropriate response to the Amygdala.

However, because the Neocortex is a much more recent development in evolutionary terms, it is less efficient than the Core. It's a bit like new software that still needs to have the glitches ironed of it.

So sometimes this route ‘short circuits’ and emotions are triggered automatically, with the Cortex being left out. The result is a very fast response.


This happens in all brains, but more frequently in some people than others. It's what happens regularly in people we would consider to be ‘over emotional’, and occasionally in all of us when we are stressed. Who hasn’t exploded over something trivial we would usually have laughed at or ignored, at the end of a bad day?

This is also what happens with phobias, where the brain is incapable of rational thought, e.g. ‘That spider cannot hurt me. It isn't poisonous and I'm 1,000 times bigger than it. Therfore it isn't a threat and I don't need to be afraid.

This serves a very important function – evolutionarily speaking, sometimes acting on impulse without stopping to think it has helped keep us alive! A being like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, totally devoid of emotion and relying purely on logic, would probably never have survived in the real world. While he was cooly and calmy analysing the percentage chances of being eaten by that sabre-toothed tiger attacking him, he'd already have been lunch!

It's also why logical argument seems to have no effect on some people. If a person is emotionally committed to a point of view, purely using logic to convince them of something else is not very effective. The fact that their views are 'under attack' short-circuits the route via the cortex and instantly creates defensive behaviour. Just think how most people react when their religious views are questioned.

In fact, there have been several studies done which show that even when people are confronted with rock solid proof that their view is wrong, they somehow blank out the new evidence and dig in even deeper to avoid admitting that they were wrong.

How can you all use this to your advantage? Well, you can't prevent your audience from having emotional reactions. You just can't. It's going to happen whether you want it to or not. Your audience themselves can't prevent it, never mind you. So accept it.

Now that you realise your audience will constantly be reacting emotionally to what you say and do, you need to deliberately create and manipulate those emotions which will help you achieve your objective.

How do you do this? By using metaphors/similes, humour, stories, painting visual images and introducing 'human interest'.

Even his opponents would grant that President Obama is a master of stirring people's emotions, and deliberately did so in most of his pesidential campaign speeches. It was one of the reasons so many people were captivated by his speeches.

For example, instead of simply saying, “We need to end the war in Iraq,” he used human interest by saying:
I was in New Hampshire the other week when a woman told me that her nephew was leaving for Iraq. And as she started telling me how much she’d miss him and how worried she was about him, she began to cry  ...... And she said to me, “I can’t breathe. I want to know, when am I going to be able to breathe again?”...... It is time to let this woman know she can breathe again. It is time to put an end this war.” Which is the more powerful?

Instead of simply saying, “We need to invest in education,” he creaed a compelling visual image by saying, “We believe that when she goes to school for the first time, it should be in a place where the rats don't outnumber the computer.” Which of the two is more memorable?

He could have just said, “The world is watching this election.” Instead he said, “There is a young man on my campaign whose grandfather lives in Uganda. He is 81 years old and has never experienced true democracy in his lifetime. During the reign of Idi Amin, he was literally hunted and the only reason he escaped was thanks to the kindness of others and a few good-sized trunks. And on the night of the Iowa caucuses, that 81-year-old man stayed up until five in the morning, huddled in front of his television, waiting for the results.” Again – which has more effect?

Now I am not suggesting that you ditch logic and data and substitute them with nothing but stories and jokes. The deliberate manipulation of emotion should complement logic, not replace it. It is by using both that you will have the greatest effect. Because remember - people still like to believe that they have behaved logically. They like to rationalise their emotions decisions after the event by using logic.

For many years during the 1980s, IBM advertized with the slogan 'Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM'. The company knew that while on the surface the purchase of a mainframe computer is as logical, rational and unemotional a purchase as you can get, underneath a huge amount of emotion is involved.

Because for the person doing the purchasing, it is an emotionally fraught decision. It costs millions of dollars, and if she gets it wrong, her neck could be on the block. So IBM appealed to the fear and anxiety they knew was involved in their advertising. But of course the purchaser couldn't tell the CEO she'd picked IBM because 'nobody ever got fired for choosing them.' So they also had to give her a long list of rational, logical, factual businesslike reasons which she could use to justify the decision.

Someone who has bought a $1,000 painting because it somewhow 'struck a chord' within her and reminded her of her childhood, will rationalise spending that much by saying something like, "Actually, when you think about it, buying that painting was really an investment. The guy in the gallery said that the artist's paintings have increased in value by almost 40% 0ver the last two years."

Someone who is becoming a keen skier might spend a small fortune on skis, poles and boots because he wants the rest of the world to see him as a 'serious' skier who has his own equipment, and that he'll look good on the slopes. The purchase is probably as much about pride and ego as anything else. But he'll rationalize the decision to himself (and to his wife, if he needs to) by telling himself that it will make him a better skier. In fact, the sales clerk in the ski equipment shop will (or should) have concentrated on performance improvement when she sold them to him.

So manipulate their emotions to get them to agree with you, then give them the logical reasons why they should do so. But do it in that order. Emotions first, then logic. It doesn't work as well the other way around.

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