Changing behavior is a complex process that involves, among other things, encouraging people to consider different choices. While most of us likely believe that our decisions are directed by logic, weighing options, and rational choices, that’s simply not the case.

Sure, consumers making a major purchase, such as a car, are likely to shop around. But behavioral economics shows that rather than making rational choices based on objective factors, we are instead frequently motivated by emotional ones—such as how we were raised, what our friends and family members do, and the lifestyles of media celebrities and other influencers we admire. Context and framing play a big role in what we do, as well. And, we’re human: our brains love to rely on shortcuts.

Research on the influence of emotion on human behavior has spanned decades. A 2015 research project, “Emotion and Decision Making,” put forth the concept of an emotion-imbued choice model. What does that mean? Simply put, this model acknowledges the fact that emotions are a main driver of decisions. According to the study, “emotion and decision making go hand in hand.”

Negative Outcomes

Researchers have developed public policy  frameworks that incorporate the role of emotion in decision making. Why does this matter? These frameworks can really make an impact on initiatives designed for the public good. Sometimes the role of emotion in decision making can go in a negative direction—we don’t always act in our own best interests. Studies of patients’ decision making in terms of healthcare options have shown that people often worry in a way that’s disproportionate to actual risk. Also, if we have a visceral, emotional reaction to something—shark attacks are a prime example—we’re more likely to inflate the likelihood of it occurring  and make decisions based on this strong feeling rather than logic. We could forgo a key health intervention or avoid a beach vacation based on outsized fear and misperceptions of true risk.

Emotions Doing Good

There are times when emotions can actually motivate us to carry out specific actions and fuel positive results. Feeling anxiety about a task can help us to better prepare for it in order to do well (think test preparation). Many studies, including one done in 2007 on road safety messages, show that positive emotional appeals can be more effective in such advertising campaigns. 

Positive or negative, emotions are a force to be managed in decision making.