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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Pincus

Disentangling concepts of emotion and motivation

Updated: Oct 31, 2018

Many marketing research techniques have been proposed purporting to measure "System 1" motivations and emotions. Unfortunately, most are unclear about what they are really measuring.



Measuring emotion in market research requires an understanding of the nuances of System 1 processing. The business world broadly, and the marketing research world specifically, have become enamored of Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 vs. System 2 distinction, which is generally a good thing because it underscores the limits of rationality. There is hardly a conference presentation I’ve seen over the past couple of years that didn’t start with some paean in praise of this distinction. As you’ve no doubt heard, Kahneman’s System 2 is the realm of rational, deliberate, and analytical conscious thought, and System 1 is the type of processing that is rapid, intuitive, non-conscious, and/or emotional. System 1 is not analytic and rational: it’s everything else, encompassing cognitive heuristics, peripheral cues, automatic and subconscious processes and, importantly, emotions. This distinction reflects the cognitive-centric perspective of most psychology departments in the 1970s through 1990s. As neuroscience has exploded, so have the old models of cognitive-centric decision making, as evidence rapidly accumulated on the centrality of emotions in decision making. In fact, it has become clear that decision making is all but impossible without emotions. Due to the emerging importance of emotional processes, at the very least, System 1 should be decomposed into its major subdivisions, motivation and sensory pleasure. As it turns out, there are clear brain structures and circuits associated with reward (i.e. motivation), which are distinct from brain structures and circuits associated with sensory pleasure (i.e. emotion). The work of Kent Berridge’s lab at the University of Michigan is particularly revealing. Berridge has demonstrated that the motivation/reward system is fuelled by dopamine levels within a particular neural pathway that extends from the mid-brain to the nucleus accumbens. This circuit is responsible for driving motivated behaviour. It is responsible for cue-triggered desire, and levels of dopamine in this circuit are directly related to the degree of urgency and frenzy associated with wanting.


Unique brain circuits

As it turns out, there are clear brain structures and circuits associated with reward (i.e. motivation), which are distinct from brain structures and circuits associated with sensory pleasure (i.e. emotion).

In order to clearly differentiate the different subsystems operating within Kahneman’s System 1, we refer to this dopamine-mediated reward/motivation system as System 1A. Berridge has identified a separate pathway responsible for sensory pleasure. This hedonic pathway extends from the front to the back of the brain, connecting to its target, the posterior ventral pallidum, the neural bullseye for pleasant experiences, which then projects up to the orbitofrontal cortex (just above the eyes). The types of pleasant, in-the-moment experiences controlled by this pathway are quite varied, and include higher-order pleasures such as being reunited with loved ones, winning money in a bet, listening to one’s favourite music, and even feelings of religious ecstasy. Again, for the purpose of differentiation of System 1, we refer to this opioid-mediated pleasure/experiential system as System 1B. The existence of separate systems underlying sensory pleasure and reward begs the question of how these systems interact. In most cases, desire and pleasure operate in harmony in response to the same stimulus, however, these systems can also go their own ways (as in the case of consciously-loathed addictions and compulsions that do not result in pleasure). Current models suggest that the reward system operates by raising or lowering the salience of cues (as objects of desire), which effectively loosens or tightens the flow of pleasure expectations derived from memory. So, System 1A and 1B interact, but can operate entirely separately in some cases.


Emotions in marketing research

It's high time to be clear about what we're measuring

Accordingly, attempts to measure emotions in marketing research should reflect this state-of-the-art understanding of these neural circuits. Note that these insights move us far beyond the old debate between the dimensional (e.g, Russell) vs. categorical (e.g. Ekman) views of emotion, both of which to some extent conflate experiential emotions and motivations. What is needed are techniques that can measure the activities of these two distinct systems. Motives are limited to a universal set of nine: Security, Identity, Mastery, Empowerment, Engagement, Achievement, Belonging, Nurture and Esteem. Also notable is that motivation can derive from either the ‘pull’ of positive aspirations (e.g. to feel a greater sense of belonging) or the ‘push’ of negative frustrations (e.g. to rid oneself of a sense of isolation). These forces propel an individual to take action in situations where making a certain choice will increase the chances that they may gain the particular form of fulfilment that they seek.



Taking action

Understanding these motivations is essential to properly positioning a brand or product against the core emotional needs of buyers. The pathways of sensory pleasure in-the-moment (System 1B), in contrast to motives, can take on a vast array of different forms (e.g. liberated, rejuvenated, energised, serene, harmonious, absorbed, triumphant). We have counted 27 major categories, within which are scores of nuances. Understanding these emotions is critical to guiding the tone and style of marketing communications, whether it is communicated by fragrance, package design, imagery, or choice of language. Ultimately, understanding both underlying category motivations and the desired emotions of the moment provides a set of options for marketers to speak to their target’s deepest emotional needs in a way that is approachable and interesting, in a way that feels good and feels right.

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