Last week, I presented a paper at the MRS annual conference with our client, Heinz, entitled ‘Why Heinz knows the Truth is Implicit’. It discussed how we had employed two implicit techniques –based on metaphors and reaction-time – to uncover associations (with a piece of advertising) which conventional explicit techniques could not.

The thrust of our argument was that fast, implicit techniques that discourage thinking and rationalisation are more likely to uncover the emotional ‘truth’ about brands and advertising than those that encourage slow effortful (system 2 if you prefer) modes of thinking.  Audience response and subsequent questions revealed a strong consensus about the importance of emotions in building and sustaining brands… until one questioner popped up with a question I hadn’t  heard for some years: What is the evidence that emotions drive behaviour?’. My response was along the lines that two decades of neuroscience, evolutionary biology and behavioural economics had built such a strong a priori case for the primacy of emotion, that it was really down to him (or others who share his view) to disprove the hypothesis. I realise now that this wasn’t the best answer and I’d like to have another go at explaining myself.

Firstly, let’s examine the question, because I believe it contains a misconception about the role of emotion in decision-making - acknowledging their ‘primacy’ is not the same thing as saying that we are driven by them. It's a cliché to say that more has been learned about the brain in the last 10 years than in the previous hundred but, like most clichés, it contains a lot of truth. The ability to look into the brain (particularly via fMRI) has produced huge advances in our understanding of brain processes, and what emerges is a picture of a vast, hitherto unknown neural hinterland where decisions are made unreflectively, unconsciously and, yes, emotionally.

Our emotions act independently of our conscious self, sending it messages which it turns into actions and feelings. Whilst we're not at the mercy of our emotions, we can't turn them off – it's physiologically impossible – which means that every time we see an ad, a brand or a product, we feel something about it, involuntarily and unconsciously.

So, the whole point about emotions is that they are ever present – whether we like it or not. That said, it’s very rare for our emotions to completely dictate our reaction – the exception being in situations of “fight or flight”, when we’re faced with extreme danger. We have learned (and have evolved) to live with our emotions, adopting (cognitive) controls that stop us from obeying their every dictate. Perhaps closer to the truth is the idea that emotions are ever-present as a framing device for all the decisions we make - be they good or bad. “Decision making hinges on the simultaneous functioning of reason and emotion” observes Gerald Zaltman.

Being emotional is not the same as being irrational, because we can employ our reason within an emotional framework. We are not irrational – at least not in the commonly accepted sense of the word - but we are very inconsistent in our reasoning. Behavioural economics is often cited as proving that man is irrational, yet experts such as Kahneman use the term in a highly specific way: for him, the only test of rationality is not whether a person’s beliefs and preferences are reasonable, but whether they are internally consistent. “I often cringe when my work is credited with proving that human choices are irrational, when in fact our research only showed that Humans are not well served by the rational-agent model.” Indeed.