Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together: Cognition, Emotion and Motivation Reconsidered

ABSTRACT - There is a tendency to narrowly define cognition in terms of what is conscious, rational, and deliberative, and a reaction against uncreative "thinking ads" can be noted. Whatever merits there may be to alternative "feelings ads" should be evaluated empirically and without inappropriate appeals to psychobiology or faculty psychology.


James C. Coyne (1982) ,"Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together: Cognition, Emotion and Motivation Reconsidered", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 153-155.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 153-155


James C. Coyne, University of California, Berkeley


There is a tendency to narrowly define cognition in terms of what is conscious, rational, and deliberative, and a reaction against uncreative "thinking ads" can be noted. Whatever merits there may be to alternative "feelings ads" should be evaluated empirically and without inappropriate appeals to psychobiology or faculty psychology.

Unspoken assumptions about the relations among cognition, emotion and motivation have a profound impact on the kind and quality of consumer research that is conducted, as well as the fads, fashions, and genuine progress that characterize the field. Few would still seriously subscribe to the nineteenth century notion that the three concepts refer to fundamental faculties capable of independent development. Yet even when we believe we have dispensed with faculty psychology, it maintains a hold on our thinking, and we are continually being surprised by the many guises in which it reappears (Candland, 1977). Likewise, phrenological maps disappeared long ago, and no one now attempts to relate psychological functions to skull bumps, but the hope remains of resolving our confusion about the relations among cognition, emotion, and motivation by identifying them with distinct neuropsycholozical centers.

Elsewhere, the task of integrating the three concepts has been referred to as the Humpty Dumpty problem (Coyne, in press; Lazarus, Coyne, & Folkman, in press). As a succession of theories demonstrate, once cognition, emotion, and motivation have been recognized as distinct influences on human behavior, it can become extremely difficult to put back together a picture of the person functioning as whole. Too often the problem has been settled by the accession of one of the three, banishment of another, and denial of any evidence that might embarrass this arrangement

In the now dominant view, cognition is in ascendancy. With talk of a return to the heart and the primacy of feelings, there is a growing challenge from emotion, but generally it is treated as a result of cognition. It is not clear where motivation fits in the current picture, and many of the critical issues it once subsumed are ignored. At various times in the past thirty years, emotion has been assimilated into drive; motivation and emotion have been denuded of thought or taken over altogether by cognition; and cognition has been disembodied with the body given over to emotion. The view of the person that emerges from such efforts is inevitably fragmented, distorted, and incomplete.

We should not lose sight of the fact that cognition, emotion, and motivation are inferential processes, not entities, each with a separate and independent existence. It is appropriate and usually necessary to distinguish among them for the purposes of conceptual analysis, but we should not forget that in the actual phenomena of human experience and action, they are difficult to separate and even fused. Taking the distinctions among them too seriously, we can get into all sorts of hopeless muddles about emotionless thought, thoughtless emotion, or people being thoughtlessly driven by some motivational force. With some regularity the field of consumer research, along with the rest of psychology, has fallen prey to this.


In the fifties and early sixties consumer research reflected the then dominant solution to the Humpty Dumpty problem with an emphasis on motivation. The consumer was examined in terms of needs, drives, motives, and conflicts. At its best, such a focus generated useful notions such as brand image, it identified some of the diverse motives influencing consumer choice, and it recognized the importance of social class on buying behavior. At its worst, it produced an assortment of psychoanalytic hypotheses about symbolic conflicts that proved to be untestable, even if intriguing (Dichter, 1964). The field at the time also gave too little attention to the role of deliberative thought in consumer behavior, and missed the virtues of straightforward presentation of the attributes of a product. An unrealistic picture of consumers as wracked by inner conflict or easily manipulated contrary to their stated preferences was promoted, and there was the false promise of advertising techniques from which the consumer could not escape.

The cognitive revolution of the sixties and early seventies corrected a number of these distortions and imbalances, and it opened new areas of research and suggested new advertising strategies. Yet, taken to the extreme, a narrowly defined emphasis on cognition brings with it a whole new see of problems.

At its best, a cognitive approach calls attention to the processes by which information is picked up, transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, and recovered. It identifies measurable aspects of information processing including beliefs, perceptions, comprehension, memory, and recall. Within a cognitive approach there have been possibilities for quantification of variables and precise testing of hypotheses far beyond what was realized when motivation was dominant.

However, there is an uncomfortable vagueness about the notion of cognition, and when we attempt to be clearer as to what we mean, nineteenth century assumptions begin to appear. Too often cognition is reduced to processes that are rational, deliberative and conscious. Thought often has all of these qualities, but at other times it decidedly does not, and it is a frustrating but vital task to describe the personal and situational variables influencing how information is processed and even whether it is processed at all.

The term "cognition" encompasses a wide range of processes. While there are connections among the various forms of thinking, we are unlikely to find an essential nature to thinking or that a single process underlies thought. When we focus on rational, deliberative, conscious thought, we miss the important situations in which consumers do not seem to be interested in maximizing their self-interest, when they are irrational in that sense, as well as when they are mindlessly undeliberative or outright impulsive.

In the last century researchers found convincing evidence that many complex judgments occur without subjects being able to access the processes that led up to them (Humphrey, 1951). More recently, Olshavsky and Granbois (1979) have provided a provocative review of the consumer behavior literature in which they conclude that for many purchases, a conscious, deliberative decision process never occurs, not even on the first purchase. Their poses a threat to the various theories and advertising strategies that assume that consumer behavior is the result of elaborate deliberations and it is a threat to the restricted view of cognition that has become dominant.

Yet we do not have to limit our notion of cognition to conscious, reportable reasoning. We would do better to rephrase the question of cognition. That is, consumer behavior can be seen as a decision process rather than as the result of a decision process (Nicosia, 1966). Behavior can always be construed as a choice in the sense that we can ask 'Why not something else?" or 'What led to this as opposed to another outcome?" When we phrase our question this way we are using decision or cognition in a hypothetical sense, not as something conscious or unconscious. We are defining an empirical program that seeks the individual and situational determinants of information processing, and that requires we ask when and whether elaborate deliberations occur, rather than accepting them as a basic underlying assumption of our models.

Narrow views of cognition lead to narrow research strategies and also uncreative and unsuccessful advertising strategies. There is growing dissatisfaction with cognitive or "thinking ads". There is a sense that advertisements need to do more than appeal to reason, and that one cannot place too much faith in the persuasiveness of cold facts as opposed to personally relevant information. Do consumers really have an irrational passion for dispassionate rationality? The new consensus seems to be "No!"


It would be premature to pronounce the demise of the cognitive orientation, but at least as it is currently being defined, it appears to be in trouble. Given the history of attempts to resolve the Humpty Dumpty problem, it is not surprising that the emerging logic seems to be that if cognition is not the answer, hope lies with its (apparent) opposite, emotion. "I believe that in the 80's we will see a return of the heart, feelings and emotions will be as important as logic and facts", proclaims a headlined article in the Marketing News (Light, 1980).

The new "feeling ads" make use of the legitimate idea that often our first and enduring response to something is in terms of its tone, ambiance or mood, and that this will have a powerful impact on later expectations and reactions Presumably, creation of a warm, positive sense of a product may be as important or even more important than communicating its specific features. For instance, if a soft drink is of a quality comparable to its competitors, it may be more crucial to establish positive associations with its consumption than to point out that it cost pennies less per glass.

One can readily note the difference between a "thinking" and a "feeling" advertisement, and in that sense the labels prove useful. however, there is considerable potential for misunderstanding. Affect or feelings have objects and intrinsic cognitive components. Elsewhere we have summarized studies in which emotional and even physiological responses to movies of bloody industrial accidents could be dampened or amplified with cognitive interventions (Lazarus, Coyne & Folkman, in press). Also, cognitive processes have intrinsic affective components, and numerous studies have shown that manipulations of mood can have significant effects on social perceptions, memories, free associations and snap judgments (Bower, 1981). Cognition and affect are fuzzily defined, complex phenomena, and neither can be totally explained without invoking the other. The considerable usefulness in making a distinction between the two has to be balanced by a sense that in mans instances they are fused strands of the person's total functioning. "Thinking ads" elicit feelings and "feeling ads" elicit cognitive processes. Problems arise when the distinction is made absolute, and we compound these problems when we try to justify the distinction by grounding it in anatomy.


An unfortunate confusion seems to be gripping certain areas of advertising and consumer research. In planning an advertising strategy, it is often useful to conceptualize it in terms of contrasting themes or thrusts such as: thought versus feelings; rational versus intuitive; realistic versus impulsive; digital versus analog; verbal versus nonverbal; analytic versus holistic. It is an empirical question as to which is going to be the most effective approach in a given situation, and there is undoubtedly no single, general answer. Yet the question can be confused and our efforts diverted when the themes become associated with anatomical sites, particularly-as is now being done - the left and right cerebral hemispheres.

Taking advantage of the current dissatisfaction with overly rationalistic "thinking ads", the logic seems to be (a) Rational appeals are ineffective, and so appeal must be made to feelings.(b) Rational appeals are processed in the left hemisphere, emotional appeals in the right. (c) By direct communication to the right hemisphere, one can circumvent the thoughtfulness of consumers in a way that they cannot resist. Hansen (1981) presented this speculative hypothesis more tentatively than many writers:

This may be a kind of long-run, secondary effect of advertising, the existence of which could support the proposition that the value structure of the message more or less unconsciously is adopted by the receiver, and that this is done almost automatically by consumers, as the defense mechanisms are passive in the low-involvement situations in which exposure occurs.

Extravagant claims about the effects of repeated low-involvement appeals to the right hemisphere are based on a number of misconceptions and a play on words. First, there are indeed differences in the processing style of the cerebral hemispheres, and, based on observations of the effects of anaesthesia or selective destruction of the left and right hemisphere, it can be argued that the two hemispheres differ in their emotional reactivity (Bradshaw & Nettleton, 1981). However, differences in cerebral specialization cannot be accurately summarized by the contrasting themes that have been attributed to them; and the distinction between "thinking ads" and "feeling ads" do not correspond to differences in hemisphere lateralization. As I have noted, the complex symbolization involved in "feeling ads" probably elicits considerable cognitive processing between the time of exposure and opportunities to make purchases, and, at any rate, processing in both hemispheres The notion that without the person's awareness, the right cerebral hemisphere picks up the imagery of a "feeling ad", stores it holistically, and then controls buying behavior without the involvement of the left hemisphere is at best a science fiction account. Proponents of it inappropriately cite studies of brain damaged patients, and neglect the fact that most consumers have intact corpus callosa, and that their complex buying behavior reflects a-rich integration of functions in both hemispheres.

Activation theory is being inappropriately used to bolster a competing set of claims being made about "gripping" advertising strategies and the precise assessment of consumers' psychological tendencies using psychobiological techniques. Interestingly, these claims contradict those based on cerebral lateralization by calling for high involvement advertising strategies. Nonetheless, the approaches are similar in asserting that they can produce robot-like behavior in consumers. "The consumer reacts to activating stimuli without being able to control his behavior. Activation is a means of manipulation from which the consumer is not able to escape" (Kroeber-Riel, 1979, p. 248). Assessment strategies are based on the related argument that "Since activation expresses the intensity of affective processes, psychobiological activation measures can be used to measure the strength of emotions, motives, and attitudes. These can replace less valid measures" (Kroeber-Riel. 1979. P. 248).

These arguments are based on a play on words in which multiple uses of the terms "arousal" and "activation" are treated as equivalent. First, there is the now discredited notion from the fifties that psychophysiological arousal falls along a continuum from sleep to agitated behavioral tendencies. It is now recognized that "arousal" as description of the organism's state on a continuum from sleep to wakefulness is distinct from "arousal" as a description of the organism's emotional intensity, and that one can be manipulated independently of the other (Sprague, Chambers, & Stellar, 1961). Further, it is now recognized that the reticular formation is not a homogeneous activating center, as these proposals assume, but rather an area mediating many functions (Ranck, 1981).

Reticulo-cortical activity is related in a weak and uncertain fashion to the various pupillary, electrodermal and heart-rate measurements that proponents of a psychobiological approach advocate, and none of the measurements being made are likely to be strongly related to buying behavior. In a colloquial sense, we can talk of a consumer being "roused" to make a purchase, but we are falling into another play on words if we attempt to equate this with reticulo-cortical activity or autonomic measurements.

Krugman (1981), has suggested that although autonomic measures have some utility in monitoring momentary responses to advertising stimuli, "Physiological research is not good at predicting the success of advertising. It's certainly not better than verbal data, although perhaps no worse" (p. 1). Bandura and Adams (1977) have made the more general point that "there exists little empirical justification for revering autonomic reactions or muscular contractions more highly than cognitive judgments" (p. 305).


In summary, trends in consumer research and advertising often reflect attempts to solve the Humpty Dumpty problem. We are in a period in which cognition is considered the most important piece of the egg, but there is growing dissatisfaction with a narrow definition of cognition in terms of what is rational, deliberative, and conscious. There is now a confused call for a refocusing on emotion, and it is accompanied by extravagant claims about possibilities of circumventing the thoughtfulness of consumers. Psychobiology is being used inappropriately to bolster their claims. One cannot separate emotion from cognition or detach the consumer from his or her critical abilities in the way these claims suggest. Neither can we communicate only with the right hemisphere, reticular formation or emotions. Consumers are cognitive, affective, and conative beings, and efforts are better directed to taking this into account than to pursuing elusive surefire ways of getting around it.


Bandura, A., and Adams, N. (1977)4, "Analysis of Self-Efficacy Theory of Behavior Change," Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1, pp. 287-310.

Bower, G. H. (1981), "Mood and Memory," American Psychologist, 36, pp. 129-148.

Bradshaw, J. L., and Nettleton, N. C. (1981), "The Nature of Hemispheric Specialization in Man," Brain and Behavioral Sciences, 4, pp. 51-91.

Candland, D. R. (1977), "The Persistent Problem of Emotion," (ed.), D. R. Candland et al., Emotion (Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole).

Coyne, J. C. (in Press), "A Critique of Cognitions as Causal Entitles With Special Reference to Depression," Cognitive Therapy and Research.

Dichter, E. (1964), Handbook of Consumer Motivation (New York: McGraw-Hill).

Hansen, F. (1981), "Hemispheric Lateralization: Implications for Understanding Consumer Behavior," Journal of Consumer Research, 8, pp. 23-36.

Humphrey, G. (1951), Thinking: An Introduction to Its Experimental Psychology (London: Methuen).

Kroeber-Riel, W. (1979), "Activation Research: Psychobiological Approaches in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 5, pp. 240-250.

Krugman, R. E. (May 15, 1981), "Live, Simultaneous Study of Stimulus, Response Is Physiological Measurement's Great Virtue," Marketing News, 24, p. 1.

Lazarus, R. S., Coyne, J. C., and Folkman, S. (in press), "Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation: The Doctoring of Humpty-Dumpty," (ed.) R. W. J. Neufeld, in Psychological Stress and Psychopathology (New York: McGraw-Hill).

Light, L. ML (September 19, 1980), "In 'Era of Emotion' Researchers Should Count Feelings, Not Number," Marketing News, 23, p. 1.

Nicosia, F. (1966), Consumer Decision Processes (Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall).

Olshavsky, R. W. and Granbois, D. R. (1979), "Consumer Decision Making--Fact or Fiction?" Journal of Consumer Research, 6, pp. 93-100.

Ranck, J. B. (1981), "An Obituary for Old Arousal Theory," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6, pp. 487-488.

Sprague, J. M., Chambers, W. W. and Stellar, E. (1961), "Attentive Affecture, and Adaptive Behavior in The Cat," Science, 33, pp. 165-173.



James C. Coyne, University of California, Berkeley


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09 | 1982

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


C4. The role of attachment to a human brand in improving eating habits

Amélie Guèvremont, École des Sciences de la Gestion, UQAM

Read More


L1. The Effects of Cultural Syndromes on Customers’ Responses to Service Failures: A Perspective-Flexibility-Based Mechanism

Vincent Chi Wong, Lingnan University
Robert Wyer Jr., University of Cincinnati, USA

Read More


Changes in Environment Restore Self-Control

Nicole Mead, University of Melbourne, Australia
Jonathan Levav, Stanford University, USA

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.