Why emotion beats reason in green marketing

One of the most debated topics in communication ethics these days revolves around the roles of reason and emotion in decision making. More precisely, is it thoughtful reasoning that leads to meaningful attitude change, or is it automatic intuition? And by extension, which has greater impact on behavior? This debate may seem academic, but it is of vital interest to environmental communicators. Should green messages focus on strong rational arguments, or is it more effective to emphasize under-the-radar emotional appeals?

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at New York University, makes a strong case for the role of intuition in his best-selling and much-discussed book The Righteous Mind. This book was the subject of a recent dialog in The Stone philosophy column in The New York Times. Gary Gutting (University of Notre Dame) and Michael P. Lynch (University of Connecticut) opined on Haidt’s ideas from a philosophical point of view, and Haidt was provided an opportunity to respond. The reason-emotion debate has been bubbling to the surface since Darwin and Freud revolutionized thinking about the genesis and operation of the human mind. These essays by Lynch and Gutting, and the response by Haidt, situate this discussion in the context of philosophy, social science and politics.

But there is another critically important domain in which the ideas of Darwin and Freud have been effectively and practically advanced in the past 100 years, a domain that is central to any conversation about ethical communication and fostering productive public debate: advertising.

While social scientists and philosophers must painstakingly build empirical and logical support for their theories and arguments, advertisers just go with what works. Emotion works. While peer-reviewed journal articles and books take months or years to come to fruition, marketers roll out and cancel campaigns on a dime. For these practical reasons, advertising professionals have been out in front using new methods and approaches to persuasion; researchers follow up with empirical evidence and theories that explain and predict why the new techniques are so effective.

The relationship between practitioners of persuasion and students of psychology has a long history. Edward L. Bernays, in many ways the father of modern public relations, was Sigmund Freud’s double nephew (his father’s sister was married to Freud and his mother was Freud’s sister). Bernays helped bring Freud’s writings to U.S. audiences and used his theories to promote public relations as an effective and indispensable business practice. After WWII, Ernest Dichter, another native of Vienna with a doctorate in psychology, became the “father of motivational research,” further advancing the notion that appeals to the subconscious are the key to effective persuasion.

Next page: Heart and head do not agree