Special Session Summary Getting to the Heart of the Consumer: the Role of Emotions and Cognition (Or the Lack Thereof) in Consumer Decision Making

Suresh Ramanathan, New York University
Baba Shiv, University of Iowa
[ to cite ]:
Suresh Ramanathan and Baba Shiv (2001) ,"Special Session Summary Getting to the Heart of the Consumer: the Role of Emotions and Cognition (Or the Lack Thereof) in Consumer Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 49-50.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 49-50



Suresh Ramanathan, New York University

Baba Shiv, University of Iowa


Much research on consumer decision making has regarded consumers as dispassionate, logical thinkers, adopting a rational orientation to the various tasks they engage in. Not much attention has been paid to the role of the "heart," i.e., feelings and emotions, a lacuna that has been widely criticized by eminent researchers such as Bettman (1993), Hoch and Loewenstein (1991), Holbrook and Hirschman (1982), Loewenstein (1996), Mellers et al. (1997) and Olshavsky and Granbois (1979). Fortunately, serious efforts have been made by consumer researchers in recent years to redress this imbalance (see, e.g., Garbarino and Edell 1997; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991; Kahn and Isen 1993; Luce 1998; Luce, Bettman, and Payne 1997). The broad purpose of this session was to present work that adds to this growing body of research, and to delineate conditions under which the heart dominates the mind. In doing so, we wished to show that the traditional view of humankind as rational and cognitive decision-makers needs considerable revision. Specifically we aimed to show that there are at least some consumer decisions that are ruled primarily by emotions, whether they are "low-road" spontaneous emotions or "high-road" controlled emotions (Shiv and Fedorikhin’s paper), or characterized by lack of cognition (Ramanathan’s paper) or disregard for costs (Hsee’s paper).

The specific purposes of the proposed session were three-fold: a) to outline the theoretical basis of the processes that underlie emotional decisions; b) to determine the conditions that facilitate and impede these processes and to understand the boundary conditions thereof; and c) to explore these effects in different domains and across multiple research paradigms.


Descriptions of consumer behavior in marketing literature have followed a path of reason and consciousness. Ajzen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behavior epitomizes this view. Theories of rationality and bounded rationality build on this viewof people as cognitive decision-makers. While irrationality has been documented extensively, no major role has been ascribed to emotions as the basis for such decisions. Most accounts of irrationality have been descriptive and not explanatory. In contrast, social cognition literature is replete with instances where people act automatically on the basis of perceptual, affect-driven or motivational processes (see Bargh and Chartrand 1999 for a review). Unfortunately, consumer researchers in the past have been loath to examine conditions under which consumer behavior can proceed under the guidance of automatic or lower-order processes (for an exception, see Fitzsimons and Williams 1999). As we showed in this session, there are several decision domains in which cognition either plays a marginal role or does not have a role at all in explaining behavior. For instance, Shiv and Fedorikhin’s paper demonstrated that constraints placed on capacity by manipulating decision time and concurrent cognitive activity lead to a greater reliance on affect and evoked emotions as the basis for the decision, even if the consequences of engaging in such an action are potentially deleterious. Ramanathan argued that the pursuit of the affect resulting from such actions becomes a goal in itself that can be activated automatically by environmental stimuli. Hsee made the case that people often have affection for objects that directs behavior in a way that is not predicted by standard choice theories. In all three of these papers, the common theme was the role of emotions and/or the limited role of cognition/reason as a determinant of consumer behavior.

The focus of the first paper by Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin was on how choice behavior can be influenced by emotions that arise both spontaneously ("low-road" emotions) and in a controlled fashion ("high-road" emotions). They presented a conceptual model that is based on recent evidence obtained from brain-scan and chemical tracing techniques (LeDoux 1987, 1995, 1996). The model elucidated the conditions under which low and high road emotions are likely to arise and influence choice behavior. They then presented the results of two studies in support of this model, one where subjects chose between chocolate cake and fruit-salad, and the other where subjects chose between pizza and soup.

The second paper by Suresh Ramanathan took a different route to show that the pursuit of gratification is endemic in some individuals to the point that the behaviors associated with the realization of the goal of gratification are represented as action scripts that get automatically activated. His research focused on the role of goal-dependent automaticity in impulsive decisions. Across two experiments, he showed that impulsive behavior, where people choose items that are hedonically valenced, can be influenced by merely activating gratification goals through a priming task. Further, he showed that the goal of gratification is chronically accessible in impulsive people and does not need to be activated explicitly. In a second experiment, he showed the motivational properties of the goal of gratification by demonstrating an increase in impulsive behavior after a delay among impulsive people, while the same delay led to a decrease in the tendency to act impulsively among non-impulsive people.

In the third paper, Chris Hsee and Howard Kunreuther argued that individuals develop affection toward products and services just as they do toward other individuals or toward their pets. They presented extensive evidence suggesting that this affection can lead to behavior that violates standard rational choice theories. For example, imagine that the consumer has the choice between two medicines of identical efficacy, but substantially different costs for her ailing pet. As per rational choice theories, the consumer ought to choose the cheaper option, irrespective of how fond they are of their petsCafter all both the medicines are identical in efficacy. Chris and Howard presented evidence running contrary to decision theory, suggesting that consumers are more likely to choose the expensive medicine when they have higher affection for their pets than when the do not.

These three papers provided for a healthy debate on the role of emotions in consumer decision-making. Besides contributing to the theory of such decision processes, they brought in new perspectives from neuropsychology (Shiv and Fedorikhin), conditional automaticity (Ramanathan) and behavioral decision theory (Hsee and Kunreuther). They addressed important issues hitherto not examined in extant literature and brought together a seamless understanding of how consumers make certain decisions.

Dr. Antoine Bechara acted as our discussant. Dr. Bechara is widely acknowledged as one of the leading contemporary neuroscientists and has published several papers on the neurological foundations of emotions together with another renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Antonio Damasio. Dr. Bechara presented additional neurological evidence of the nature of emotions and cognition. In a fascinating presentation, Dr. Bechara outlined how the amygdala and the hypothalamus are implicated differently in different situations and how affective and cognitive processes play out in the human brain.