Why is it that when we see someone with a gun we panic and flee in fear, while a cop acts calmly with their life on the line? How do professional day traders amass fortunes using greed and fear, while most others lose money with the same emotions? Herein lies an emotional dilemma.

Neuroscientific evidence has recently shed light on this debate with considerable implications for how we measure and manage emotions in shaping consumer behavior. The debate boils down to this: Are emotions baked into our brains, waiting to be triggered (emotions as reactions) or are emotions in fact concepts that are socially learned and shaped by culture and experience (emotions as perceptions)?

Emotions as Reactions
For decades, emotions have been viewed as biological reactions to our world, wired since birth and universally recognized. When triggered, they are a direct cause of behavior.  For example, if we see a gun we run or if we watch a comical ad, we laugh.

If emotions are hard-wired universal reactions, then why do we not all laugh or smile when we see a comical advertisement? Or why does a gun in the hand of cop connote safety but in the hands of most everyone else trigger fear? And how do professional day traders proactively use greed and fear to make profitable judgments?

Emotions as Perceptions
New and exciting neuroscientific research is repeatedly demonstrating that emotions are not passive reactions to our world, but are perceptions actively constructed by our brains over many years and used as feedback to prescribe action (Lindquist et al., 2012; Barrett, 2017).  Stated differently, emotions are socially learned from our past experiences and proactively used as sources of information to guide future action (Baumeister, 2007).  For example, cops act calmly during life-threatening situations because they have extensive training with guns.  Likewise, successful day traders use emotion as feedback to manage risk from years of experience (Lo et al., 2005).  How we perceive emotion defines us as unique individuals.

To illustrate how emotions are made, let’s visualize your elementary school English teacher grading essays. Grades are feedback (e.g., A, B, or 90, 80) but unlike multiple choice tests (which have objective right and wrong answers) essays involve considerable subjectivity. There are obvious factors such writing style, use of literary techniques, and tone of writing.  But other determinants as well, such as the teacher’s mood. Was she comparing the papers to those written by other students? Was she in a rush? Did she read the entire paper? If another teacher reviewed the composition, would it receive the same score? 

The point is, emotions are like essay grades. They may have an objective letter/number grade (biological component) but they are not completely objective (like right/wrong multiple-choice tests), and are constructed based on situational, and social factors (subjective component).

Application in Marketing

What does all this mean for marketing and market research? 


Each individual has their own understanding, meaning, and expression of emotions to navigate the world.  What may frighten my mother, may actually prove motivating to me. Reading science arouses me, but bores many. How everyone experiences and expresses emotion is highly subjective and tightly coupled to past experiences, culture, and contexts. Biological ‘direct’ measures (facial coding, heart rate, skin conductance, etc.) don’t capture ‘how’ we use emotion.  Marketing needs to understand and map consumers perception of emotions.


Emotions are perceptions that are socially learned and proactively used to guide behavior.  Therefore, instead of trying to ‘trigger’ them, marketers should focus on actively shaping them.  Instead of overwhelming consumers with high-arousal emotional content, try aligning emotional content with consumers’ future preferences to guide behavior toward your brands.


Whether you are trying to increase sales, improve awareness, or create memorable experiences—emotions are one of many tools.  Emotions being individualized, and highly subject to situational influences, can make leveraging them in an effective way time-consuming and costly. Therefore, it can be valuable to understand and map how emotions impact your brands in progressive stages.  Also, beware of making emotion assumptions (positive and humor is always good, etc.), as it can backfire (Louro et al., 2005). Sometimes the status quo can be a safer, more successful route.


Part 2 of the new science of emotions will be focused on helping you integrate the new science of emotion into your marketing programs and measurement systems.

Some questions we will provide clarity to are:

  • How do we shape new emotion perceptions with our brand and products?
  • When should we focus on creating more intense, distinct or granular emotional experiences?
  • Should emotional experiences be consistent across the brand, product, usage occasions, and places?
  • What are cost effective validated measures of emotions as perceptions?


  • Barrett, L. F. (2017). The theory of constructed emotion: An active inference account of interoception and categorization. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
  • Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., DeWall, C. N., & Zhang, L. (2007). How emotion shapes behavior: Feedback, anticipation, and reflection, rather than direct causation. Personality & Social Psychology Review.
  • DeWall, C.N., Baumeister, R.F., Chester, D.S., & Bushman, B.J. (2016). How often does currently felt emotion predict social behavior and judgment? A meta-analytic test of two theories. Emotion Review
  • Lindquist K.A., Wager T.D., Kober H, Bliss-Moreau E, Barrett L.F. (2012). The brain basis of emotion: a meta-analytic review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
  • Lo, A. W., Repin, D. V., & Steenberger B. N., (2005). Fear and Greed in Financial Markets: A Clinical Study of Day-Traders. American Economic Review.
  • Luoro, M. J., R. Pieters, M. Zeelenberg. 2005. Negative returns on positive emotions: The influence of pride and self-regulatory goals on repurchase decisions. Journal of Consumer Research.