The Emotion and Logic Tug of War

Something peculiar caught my attention last week. While I was sifting through Facebook, I came across a video that was created by a caring boyfriend, in an attempt to help sell his girlfriend’s ’96 Honda Accord. The video has long since cemented its name in the viral internet videos hall of fame by amalgamating over 5 million views on YouTube, and appropriately so; it’s pure marketing brilliance. If you haven’t heard about, or seen the ad, you can check it out here. There’s no doubt that the video makes a very compelling case to a buyer that the Accord is a steal at $499. But, would you be willing to pay $150,000 for the vehicle?

Turns out, the Ebay auction actually went that high.

Emotions Govern Decisions

My job requires me to travel across Ontario, where I talk to prospective high school students about why the University of Waterloo would be a stellar choice for their post-secondary studies. Candidly speaking, on paper, Waterloo is an absolutely world class educational institution. However, at the end of my interactions, I always tell students it is imperative that they come to campus and check out the university first hand to gauge their affinity to it; this act usually serves as the decisive element in their decision making. Despite all the logic that may imbue a decision, emotion will typically trump logic when promoting a given action.

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a remarkable discovery, while examining subjects who had damaged the areas of their brain where emotions were generated. He noted that in addition to being unable to experience emotion, the subjects were also unable to make decisions. What’s even more noteworthy is that the subjects could rationalize various courses of action, but when it came to actually executing on them, they were chastised. The decision to eat, pick out clothes, or make a purchase were, for all intents and purposes, inhibited. This study sheds light on why students must come to campus to make an informed decision on their post secondary institution of choosing, why car buyers will spend an exorbitant $150,000 on an old Honda Accord, and why logic must always be anchored in emotion in order to drive action.

The Golden Circle

Simon Sinek, the author of Start With Why, has the third most popular Ted Talk presentation of all time titled: How Great Leaders Inspire Action. In both his novel and presentation, Sinek suggests that the most effective communicators achieve their results by employing a directive form of communication that is counterintuitive to the way lay folk communicate. He’s dubbed this codified methodology, the ‘Golden Circle.

Akin to a triple layer cake, the Golden Circle represents three distinct levels of communication efficacy, which include: what, how, and why, appearing in distal to proximal fashion, respectively. Generally speaking, most people and organizations can communicate what they do or what they can offer. Whether it’s data processing skill, a liberal intellectual property policy, or above average fuel economy, the ‘what’ is on the surface and is unmistakable. A smaller portion of people and organizations can communicate how they do what they do. Whether it’s a unique selling proposition, proprietary process, or stellar supply chain. Finally, a rare breed of people can communicate why they do what they do, what their purpose is, and why they get up in the morning. Importantly, the ‘why’ usually carries with it an emotional prowess.

Typically, our mode of communication follows the direction of ‘what’, ‘how’ and, if known, ‘why’. We go from the clearest piece of data to the haziest sentiment. However, the best of communicators, those who inspire change, will interact in the opposite way by focusing on the ‘why’ and working their way out.

Of course, skeptics could contest this as an anecdotal suggestion, but it’s grounded in concrete science. A cross section of our brain reveals three distinct areas that correlate perfectly with the Golden Circle. The outermost part of our brains, the neo cortex, corresponds with the ‘what’ level. It’s rational, responsible for analytical thought process, and is the seat of language. The middle sections make up our limbic brains and align with the ‘how’ and ‘why’ levels. The limbic brain is where feelings are forged, human behavior is dictated from, has no capacity for language, and is the decision making centre. Ergo, when we communicate using the ‘what’ (i.e. features, specs, characteristics, etc.), it provides valuable data to the rational part of the brain, but it will not drive action.

Worlds Best Boyfriend

Dissecting the Honda commercial, it’s apparent the creator understood how pivotal emotions are to decision making. The fundamental message of the video is that the viewer is beyond the tantalizing need for material luxury. They are superior to the appearance of class because classiness is a state of mind which supersedes everything else about the good or service. This message is bundled beautifully in the video which speaks directly to our limbic brains, fastening us in a powerful ‘why’, which once seeded, places the ‘how’ and ‘what’ in a positive, internally rationalized, and oddly logical light. How you obtain the state of mind is through the car being sold. What it happens to be is a 1996 Honda Accord, with over 140,000 miles, no CD player, no blind spot detection assist, and no heated seats to name a few features; or lack thereof.

Spock There’s Still Love for You

Star Trek fans are familiar with the Vulcan race, a stoic species that is devoid of feelings who use mathematical logic to drive all their behaviour and actions. While I’ve stressed the need for emotion in communication, it would be premature to simply abrogate all form of logic from our communication and decision-making. Notice, I always made the effort to say, logic must be rooted in emotion. It’s for this reason, emotion and logic should not be viewed as two diametrically opposed items, rather they should be seen as interconnected facets of our cognition. We know, spending $150,000 for an old bucket Honda Accord is ridiculous, even if the commercial pulls at our heartstrings exceptionally. We need logic sprinkled into the mix to communicate effectively and make wise decisions. You cannot have one without the other. Think back to some of the most critical decisions you’ve made. Picking a post-secondary institution, buying your first car; heck, even dating someone requires both logic and emotion.

I relish in the fact that I can talk to students about the University of Waterloo because there are both strong, rational supporting elements and emotional stories I can share when selling students on our institution. The relationship between emotion and logic is further vindicated when you consider the study of stock traders given a fake portfolio. When they reported intense emotion, be it anger, sadness, or joy, they actually made smarter trades. The caveat here is that the traders were consciously emotional, meaning they were aware of their emotional state. In this situation, when we acknowledge the emotion we are feeling, it can actually help us focus, sharpen our thought process, and ensure we do not act rashly.

If you’ve seen Star Trek Into the Darkness, you’ll recall the final act of the movie where Spock, the half-Vulcan-half-human, uses his emotional state to focus his mind on beating the living daylights out of Khan, a villain who was previously unbeatable. Spock is the perfect embodiment of logic and emotion melding together. When in doubt, think like Spock.

Key Takeaway: Emotion and logic both play a role in our decision making. The most effective way to communicate to drive action is by appealing to the emotion first, while sprinkling bits of logic into the fray.



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