This is going to be a little uncomfortable. More for me than you. But it’s a worthy demonstration on what I’ll be talking about here—emotions—and, specifically, the source of our emotions. It’s not what you think.
In the winter of 2014, my husband and I sat through an orientation on adoption. An eye-opening experience that takes myths, fears, and the unknown of adoption head on. Put yourself there. A room full of people, all a little bit uncertain about what to expect. Cautious about the next step, going deeper into the process. Excited, too, about the potential to change their families and lives.
The agency folks running the orientation hand out a worksheet. The instructions: draw a line from the categories in the left column to the appropriate descriptions in the right column. Everyone grab a pencil.
Left column. Black. White. Muslim. Hispanic. Jewish. Chinese. Japanese. Russian. Polish. It went on.
Right column. Good with money. Violent. Good at math. Terrorist. Good at basketball. Greedy. Stupid. It went on.
Go ahead. Make the matches.
This was an incredibly uncomfortable moment because I could draw the lines they expected me to draw. We all could.
We live in a society where, like it or not, believe them or not, concepts are continually reinforced. Concepts like stereotypes, amongst so many other things. Concepts shape the way we see and respond to the world. Concepts we are not born with. Concepts we learn. And that’s where it gets really interesting.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I heard this: “The very first thing we are taught about emotions is wrong.”
Here at Truth, we are Addicted to Emotion. Yes. Capitalized Addicted. We believe that when people feel more, they do more. Emotions are powerful motivators and that’s important stuff to those of us in the marketing world. After all, we are behavior-changing agents.
So, you might imagine that when I heard that the way our culture thinks about emotion is entirely wrong, I leaned in.
I was listening to Invisibilia, an NPR podcast produced by Lulu Miller, Alix Spiegel, and Hanna Rosin. It’s all about the hidden forces driving us as human beings. A little bit science, a little bit psychology, a little bit sociology. The episode, “Emotions Part 1,” featured input from world-renowned psychologist and neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett. And it was Lisa who laid this challenging statement down.
Across the world there is a general hypothesis that we are born with the ability to feel emotions. Happiness. Sadness. Anger. Longing. Regret. From the simple to the complex, we have believed we are wired to feel a full spectrum of emotions. But Feldman Barrett says, we actually aren’t wired for any of that.
She explains our brain is simply equipped to feel four things: pleasantness, unpleasant, arousal and calmness. All day long our brain is taking in signals across our body and categorizing those signals into the very foundational and physical four buckets.
So where do our emotions come from, then?
Emotions are born of concepts.
Our brain takes those simple feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness, calmness, arousal and develops a theory based on previous experience, using that to make a prediction on what’s going on. That is a concept. The brain using past experience to make sense of incoming sensory inputs.
We have no idea just how strong an influence the concepts we’re exposed to influence the way we think, act and feel.
Think about the stereotype exercise in the adoption orientation. By no means do I agree with those lines drawn, but they’ve been drawn often enough that those connections now stand as permanent connections made in my brain. We were all able to draw the lines matching race/ethnicity to stereotype because these are concepts that are reinforced throughout our culture. Right or wrong. And we all felt uncomfortable doing it, because we know it’s not right to draw those lines.
Concepts born of our own experiences are so strong an influence in shaping the world around us, our physical vision is impaired if it doesn’t have the concepts to draw from when interpreting the information from our own eyes. Here’s an example. Let’s say “John” lived an entire lifetime with complete vision impairment. His brain was never able to attach the actual vision of an apple to the other sensory input he received from that apple. Upon a surgery that restored his full eyesight, he still might not be able to “see” the apple for days, weeks, months or in some cases, years. While his brain will pick up sensory data of light and dark, there is no past visual experience for him to connect those inputs, and it might take time before his brain is able to understand what his eyes can plainly see.
Since hearing this notion of the influence of our past experiences creating our emotions, it continues to open my eyes to all the little triggers, across all senses that are shaping how we feel throughout the day.
These are the triggers and concepts we tap into as marketers to connect with our audiences emotionally. Whether we realize it or not. Colors elicit certain emotions because they are connected to feelings and experiences we’ve had. And these associations with color are continually reinforced by society. Music gives us behavioral cues on how we should feel only because of the associations and concepts we connect to those sounds. Sad music. Happy music. Ominous music. Even a certain style in design or photography can elicit a specific emotion just based on the concept it connects with in the brain.
We can use concepts to actually create feelings simply by using them as triggers to past experiences. And so, when we think about the importance of emotion—and the power of getting people to feel more so they’ll do more—let’s think about what concepts they’ve lived. What are their past experiences? And how do those concepts make them feel?
Pretty powerful stuff when we think about how we engage the world around us. Not just as marketers, but as people who want to see change in the world. Everyone has the power to consider the past experiences of someone else. Let’s just promise to use this incredible power for good.