What are you afraid of? The role of emotions in Social Marketing

*Paper presented at the first World Social Marketing Conference (Dublin, 2011)

The aim of this article is to present some promising streams of research in the emotions literature that can improve behavioral models used in Social Marketing. The role of emotions is diminished in traditional theories of human behavior with ample currency in the field, such as the Health Belief Model, the Transtheoretical Model and the Theory of Planned Behavior.

Consider, for instance, the Theory of Planned Behavior. Ajzen (2005), who is one of its proponents, considers that emotions are only one of other background factors that can impact the antecedents of behavior, although with no necessary connection to beliefs, attitudes or intentions. Champion and Skinner (2008) remember that the Health Belief Model is criticized by the absence of variables related to emotions, like fear. In the Transtheoretical Model there is only one out of ten processes of change related to emotions (Prockaska, Redding & Evers, 2008), but without further elaboration on the antecedents and processes associated with them.

But in the consumer behavior literature, there has been a paradigm shift, in which, in the words of Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999), the vision of the individual as a “thinking machine”, powered only by their cognitions, has been abandoned, since mounting evidence shows that many human decisions are made without the careful pondering predicted by traditional models. Loewenstein (1996) changed the consumer behavior field by arguing that visceral factors, such as drive states, emotions and cravings can have a disproportionate effect on behavior.

Bagozzi, Gurhan-Canli and Priester (2002) point out that the emotional aspects of consumer behavior had been neglected by the literature and the connection between emotions and behavior is stronger and more direct than the connection between attitudes and action, which often depends on the existence of a motivational impetus. Philips and Baumgartner (2002), among others, identified the importance of positive and negative emotions as antecedents of satisfaction. Satisfaction has gained prominence in marketing research as a necessary antecedent of consumer loyalty, which is the linchpin of relationship marketing. Hastings (2003) has stressed that Social Marketing can benefit from the relational perspective, characterized by a long-term horizon.

Emotions have a stronger connection with behavior and the rationale seems clear: emotions arise in response to events that are relevant to the concerns of individuals and there is an implicit tendency to action in every emotion and (Frijda, 2007). The literature shows that emotions influence, directly or indirectly, the expression of individual identity (Ashton-James, Maddux, Galinsky, & Chartrand, 2009), evaluation of objects, information processing and human behavior itself (Ruys & Stapel, 2008; Tiedens & Linton, 2001).

Two different types of affective response are known to impact behavior and evaluations: integral affective responses, which are those that truly experienced by the subject and directly linked to the object of evaluation, and incidental affective responses, which are effects caused by previous and unrelated factors on the subsequent evaluation or behavior. Integral responses are frequently used as proxies for value, that is, objects that evoke a positive response are judged as desirable and vice versa (Pham, 2007). Andrade and Ariely (2009) showed that even moderate incidental affective responses may have lasting impact on future behavior, as they set short-term decisions as a basis for future decisions, through the mechanism of consistency.

The literature also shows that integral affective responses to a variety of objects have direct influence on evaluations and behavior of individuals, notwithstanding the prior beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes (Cohen, Pham & Andrade, 2008). A good example was provided by Westen (2007), whose work argued, in a compelling manner, that the emotional response to the candidates in American elections, throughout the twentieth century, was the main determinant of victory or defeat.

Moreover, there is evidence in the literature that the affective judgments based on integral emotion have more consistency than cognitive judgments (Pham, Cohen, Pracejus, & Hughes, 2001) and are relatively insensitive to probabilities. Lee, Amir and Ariely (2009) showed that when individuals base their decision making on emotional reactions, there is more consistency in their preferences and less cognitive noise in the decision.

The decisions and assessments based on emotion are sensitive only to deviations of absolute certainty, that is, the mere possibility of occurrence of an event (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001; Pham et. al., 2001). In this type of decision, emotion often drives the behavior.

Andrade (2005) proposes two mechanisms by which the emotions impact behavior: affect regulation and affect evaluation. In the first case, the emotional state felt by the individual bias the assessments about the environment and the behavior. A positive emotional state leads to a favorable assessment of the environment and an active behavior and vice versa. Factors such as the accessibility of the affective state, their diagnostic value and the existence of competing goals interfere with this assessment. The second mechanism predicts that individuals, by having a positive affective state as a goal, i.e., a hedonic goal, project into the future the expected outcome of certain actions, with the goal either to strive for a positive emotional state to offset the current negative state or to protect the current positive emotional state.

The model proposed by Andrade helps to reconcile conflicting findings in previous literature. Thus, the operation of both mechanisms explains why a positive emotional state may either lead to either favorable or resistant behavior to risk depending on the projection of a possible loss associated with the decision (Arkes, Herren, & Isen, 1988). If consumers believe that taking some course of action will generate a state of tension and threaten their positive mood, they may choose not to spoil their mood.

Loewenstein et. al. (2001), in turn, propose a model to explain the unique influence of emotions in decisions and behaviors that involve some type of risk. In this model, known as risk as feelings, the influence of emotions on behavior follows a path at the same time parallel and intertwined with cognitions. However, emotions respond to such factors as the immediacy of the risk and other contextual factors, which do not integrate the cognitive assessment of risk. Emotions also respond to probabilities and expected results in a different way from cognitive assessments: they are sensitive to the mere possibility of a vivid event but not to its probability. Thus, emotions can direct individuals to behaviors very different from those implied by cold cognitions as the most appropriate to a given situation. Typical examples are the influence of anxiety or fear on financial decisions or decisions related to health. The risk-as-feeling perspective represents a conceptual advance over other frameworks by identifying with parsimony the factors that activate, separately and together, the two types of evaluation (cognitive and affective) that precede the decisions and behavior. The model also accommodates similar propositions in the literature, such as the one advanced in Pham et. al. (2001), by which emotions elicited after exposure to a particular object direct and influence the generation of consistent cognitions, which help to explain the initial emotional response.

Emotions can impact decisions also via affective forecasting, which tends do be biased according to the evoked emotion. Among the mechanisms suggested to explain the bias of overestimation of future emotional reactions, there are the focalism and the construal perspectives (Buehler & McFarland, 2001). According to the first one, people focus only on the event itself, without taking into account the impact of other concomitant factors that may mitigate the enjoyment or attenuate the suffering. In the construal perspective, subjects imagine the event developing with very specific characteristics, i.e., occurring in a particular way among various possible alternatives. For example, a gambler can imagine a situation in which she is the only winner, in the best possible scenario. Thus, individuals create their emotional reaction to the event depending on the specific construal adopted.

The most known representation of emotions is the circumplex model of affect (Russel, 1980). According to this model, the self-reported affective states are organized in the form of a circle, around two axes, one evaluative (negative or positive) and the other representing the level of arousal associated with each emotion. But emotions also vary around their physiological reactions and other cognitive appraisals, such as responsibility and certainty (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005; Frijda, 2007). Anger, for instance, is an emotion with a high degree of certainty and responsibility attributable to others. The identification of the main cognitive dimensions coupled with the consideration of the action tendency implicit in each emotion can provide great value to social marketers, inasmuch as some emotions seems to have greater probability to induce the creation of implementation intentions and even the execution of behaviors. This calls into question the widespread use of fear appeals, since the action tendency implicit in fear is to evade, to escape, to denial.

Passyn and Sujan (2006) showed that emotions with high degree of self-accountability, regardless of its valence (positive or negative), explain the adoption of health-related behaviors. The impact of emotions like guilt, regret and challenge was quite significant in comparison with emotions with low self-accountability (hope and fear) and with cognitions, generating real behavioral effects.

Positive emotions that are attracting special attention are pride and gratitude. According to Williams and DeSteno (2009), the primary function of pride is to provide motivation to fuel hedonic costly efforts, dedicated to the acquisition of skills that enhance the status and value of the individual in his social group. Gratitude, in turn, is a highly valued emotion in a relationship context. According to Palmatier, Javis, Bechkoff and Kardes (2009), organizations can induce gratitude in their consumers by demonstrating effort, adapting its policies and delivering gifts. Gratitude implies an action tendency to reciprocate, which favors continuity of the relationship. In addition, gratitude can lead to other positive emotional responses and increase the perceptions of trust.


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