The Power and Influence of Emotion

May 06

Although humans are complex creatures, let’s face it – we are “cognitive misers.” We like to process information simply. And who can blame us, in this day and age of information bombardment, it is natural to place information in silos to help us better digest the content.  Sometimes we even ignore information, unless something pulls us in.

I personally am fascinated by the role that emotion can play in helping us become attracted to, and thus, better able to accept and use information to change our behavior. In fact, studies have found that emotional messages (those providing some appeal to our feelings) are more memorable than rational messages (those that ignore the emotional aspect and focus exclusively on providing technical information).

An interesting theory, popular in advertising, is Petty and Cacioppo’s elaboration likelihood model (ELM). When faced with information, the ELM asserts that individuals take one of two routes: the central route or the peripheral route. Those who take the central route have the motivation and ability to process the rational arguments presented, while those who take the peripheral route tend to not have the motivation and ability to process the information. So, those who travel the central route focus on the message content, such as the textual information, while those on the peripheral route pay more attention to heuristic cues such as colors and visuals.

Sounds a bit obvious, that when we really don’t care about an issue, we  may defer to other aspects of a message that may make us interested. But, taking a twist on the ELM,  if emotional appeals can serve as heuristic cues, then perhaps we will be more likely to process the technical aspects of the content.  Our emotional state will influence how we process the message and can even draw us in to become interested in the more technical, information-heavy message.

We have seen this in social marketing campaigns, and in my opinion, these campaigns have been very effective.  And I’m not just talking about using fear as an emotion. Even other emotions, such as pride, joy, gratitude, and even worry and anxiety can pull us in to absorbing a message. Check out this ad promoting seat belt use that Lauren Belisle includes in her post on traffic safety.

While social marketing has recognized the powerful role of emotion and have been open to letting their campaigns “wear their hearts on their sleeves”, I think in general, health communication can do more to ensure that when rational information is presented, for example, on a Web site, some emotional aspects are attached.

It seems like the role of emotion was discussed a fair deal in the recent World Social Marketing Conference. I’m still going through the materials; they’re finally posted online!, including Dr. Jose Mazzon’s presentation [PDF] on The Role of Emotions in Social Marketing. If you attended the conference, or even if you didn’t, what are your thoughts, or feelings (pun-intended), on emotions in social marketing and health communication?

This entry was posted on Friday, May 6th, 2011 at 11:40 am and is filed under Behavior Change, Public Health, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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