Rational Brain; Emotional Brain

Lately I have been noticing two distinct sides of my brain. My default operation is to respond to things intellectually, analyzing pros and cons, looking for logic and reason. However, I have a deep-seated need to express and respond to emotions as well. I nourish this side by reading good books, watching movies, and sharing feelings with my loved ones.

It turns out that, according to psychological research, everyone has these two sides, and they manifest themselves into two basic ways of responding to information: emotional and rational. Our brains, of course, are not literally split in this manner but it is a useful metaphor for envisioning the way we process information and make choices. From the perspective of those wishing to change attitudes or behaviors, whether it is to buy a new razor or protest the development of fossil fuels, they can choose to frame their messages to appeal to the rational or emotional side of us.

Rational appeals are those that are logically oriented, using facts and numbers, as opposed to emotional appeals, which are oriented toward eliciting positive or negative feelings. Take, for example, a Harry’s Razor ad: “Every man deserves a quality shave at a fair price.” This is a mostly logical argument about monetary value. On the other hand, Gillette appeals purely to emotions with this ad: “Notice how much she wants to kiss you since you switched razors? You’re welcome.”

At a nonprofit where I used to work, discussions would ensue about whether something that relied on emotional appeals was somehow cheating; trying to influence people to support or oppose an issue without engaging their rational side seemed like encouraging them to use poor decision-making skills. Others would defend the emotional plea, pointing out that those appeals are often the only way to get someone to start paying attention. Which side is right?

The science is interesting, and still developing in this area. What we know right now is that rational appeals are more effective with certain people or in certain contexts than emotional appeals, and the reverse is true as well. It just depends on the person’s natural orientation, how they have been primed by recent experiences, and the importance of the decision. We also know that both our rational and emotional sides work in concert to help us make fast and accurate decisions most of the time.

Advertising studies in particular have found that emotional appeals overall have a larger influence on persuasion. It’s possible that the results skew toward emotional appeals in advertising because purchasing a product is often less serious than other kinds of decisions we make. Thinking again about razors, we know that all razors are going to do the job we need them to do. So the reason to pick one over another, after accounting for small differences in price and features, will likely simply come down to how the product makes us feel. Even bigger purchases like cars or houses have a lot to do with our feelings about the product and what it says about us. Does this apply to nonprofits?

Some nonprofit marketers suggest we can take the advertising results and apply them directly to nonprofit work, and others reject this idea. I think it depends on a number of factors:

  1. In a pool of similar organizations where the differentiations are minor, emotional appeals can help someone identify which group she will find the best cultural fit.[i]
  2. When addressing an audience with little knowledge about an issue, emotional appeals can help that audience initiate thought about the issue.[ii]
  3. When addressing an audience that is already knowledgeable and concerned, rational appeals will provide longer-term attitude or behavior change than emotional appeals.[iii]
  4. On the other hand, if the audience starts off opposed to your message, rational appeals often cement attitudes even further in the direction opposite what you intend.[iv] [There is some data that says this is counteracted when accompanied by an image. See my earlier post on influencing naysayers (http://wp.me/p6CWME-7).]

Ultimately, it may be a combination of the two that works best. The emotional appeal at the beginning gets people’s attention and piques their interest. Following with a rational appeal solidifies that interest and helps commit any changes taking place in attitude or behavior to last longer than the next few minutes. However, it’s always important to evaluate who your audience is and what your purpose is before deciding. What has worked for you?

[i] Rita Clifton, ed., Brands and Branding, 2nd ed. (New York: Bloomberg Press, 2009).

[ii] Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo, “The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 19 (1986): 123–62.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Martin Fishbein et al., “Avoiding the Boomerang: Testing the Relative Effectiveness of Antidrug Public Service Announcements before a National Campaign,” American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 2 (February 1, 2002): 238–45, doi:10.2105/AJPH.92.2.238.

Image source: freeimages.com/Tory Byrne