Emotions: The Missing Ingredient to Improve Business Performance


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As part of our series of expert interviews, Steven Walden (Principal Consultant and Head of Research at Beyond Philosophy), speaks to Dr Nigel Marlow on the role of Consumer and Business Psychology in Customer Experience Management and business.

In this article, Dr Marlow tells us how emotions are the missing ingredient to improved businesses interaction with consumers and employees.

Before becoming a psychologist, Dr Nigel Marlow spent 20 years in the textile industry. He now lectures at London Metropolitan University, where he has developed Master’s courses in business and consumer psychology.

1. Why is psychology important within the business world today?

If you think about what area has the greatest impact upon us you will see that it is the business area because:

a) If you work for a company, apart from goods and services, businesses also produce a lot of stress for their employees, for instance, in research up to 90% of people say they don’t like their job. Business also produces a lot of pollution and people usually don’t like to make the connection between what they do in business and the impact of that on the environment.

b) Consumer psychology is interesting also because businesses are not there unless they have consumers. This area of psychology affects 100% of the population whereas in the more specialised areas of psychology like the medical psychology the scope of the research affects 0.1 % of the population.

2. How can psychology help improve businesses today?

10 – 15 years ago the psychology applied in day-to-day business was concentrated around human resource management e.g. selection, training, development etc. Now psychology is in a position to help business in a fundamental way.

In 2008 we saw two major changes. Firstly it was widely accepted that climate change is real. Secondly we saw the credit crunch.

The business model we have used in the last 110 years (since Ford built his factory) is simply wrong model; it is leading us into buffers. Based on the profit motif it created problems in the way organisations are organized in terms of hierarchy, the way that people deal with one another, the way that management deals with the employees, the way that the managements thinks what management is etc. These are all very linear, all very planned, rational etc. That environment does not suit human beings because we are not that rational and linear.

Instead we should look at building more flat, informal, with local and community focus organizations whose business model is not entirely focused on profits.

The new four ”P” should be ”Purpose”, ”Planet”, ”Poverty” and ”People”.

3. Why has emotion not been considered as much as it should have been in business?

Since Ford businesses have seen themselves as very rational, very linear places, where everything is about control, control, control. In those organizations where you talk about hierarchy, power, control, survival of the fittest, jungle war etc., there is no room for emotions. The idea is that ”If it is rational, than it should be correct”. That way of thinking, wanting to treat everything as science, has neglected the role of the emotions.

4. What can emotion bring to the business world that rationality cannot?

The one word that particularly jumps in mind is passion.

Passion leads to motivation because if you are truly motivated about something than you are passionate about it, and if you are passionate about it you can’t be rational about it.

5. How are emotions important in consumer decision-making?

For years marketing has treated consumers as rational beings. However, if you introspect why we buy or like something, you will see that it has nothing to do with rationality.

You cannot abstract emotion from any decision. The rational might be adequate for the low involvement products such as the fast moving consumer goods (e.g. baked beans, toothpaste etc.) as they don’t mean much to us but not for high involvement or ”big ticket” items such as a car, house etc.

People often say ”let’s be rational about it” implying that you can somehow keep the emotions separate. This is nonsense because you cannot separate them. There is no separate thinking and emotional system in the body. We don’t work like that. We are complex beings and emotions are always part of what we are thinking, doing, feeling, behaving … and separating the emotions is an entirely wrong thing.

You cannot abstract emotion from any decision making. As soon as we see something we can say whether we like it or not. We don’t always rationalise on the things we do. For example if someone asks us ”Why you bought these shoes” we usually say ”because I like them”. This is a typical diffuse emotional response to something because we cannot really rationalise why we bought them.

Similarly in the way we have an emotional response to things we also have an emotional response to brands.

Research in America, looking for the differences in the taste between Pepsi and Coca-Cola, found using brain scanners that the brains of the participants fired at the moment when they saw the brand (i.e. the logo of the Pepsi or Coca-Cola). This was in the lower emotional regions. Those people did not know their brains were firing; they did not know they were having an emotional reaction. And if you told them that they were having an emotional reaction and asked them to introspect and look at this emotional reaction they wouldn’t be able to. This suggests we have got something that is not only acting at a subconscious level but, as Freud talked about, there is something going on in your brain that is inaccessible to you at an unconscious level. This is something that academic psychology has denied for years (since Freud thought of it).

Another thing that brings emotions into the organisation is that we have emotional reactions to things, objects, colours, decorations, furniture, other people etc. One of the biggest emotional reactions we have, we call it ”stress”. Stress has always been labelled as ”scientific” because we can measure it e.g. you can measure the nerve activity, heart beat etc.

All these reactions are emotional responses. And it’s the same underlying physiological response to stress as we have to other emotions. So again we see that the emotional life of organisations is very important to people; this is something that psychology can help with by making the organization a place where you can get positive emotions, rather then negative.

We will now discuss two thought-leading research techniques that can help us understand these ‘sub-conscious’ reactions, IAT and Repertory Grid.

6. What is IAT (Implicit Association Test)?

IAT theory was developed in the USA and is mainly used in academic circles. It is measuring the strength of association between two concepts in our minds. It is done in such a way that is very difficult to fake the test because it is based on reaction times. The theory it is based on Freudian concepts. It is a word association test and part of spotting whether people have some complex emotional response to these words is the latency, the delay in their response.

7. How can IAT be used in business?

IAT is interesting because it is looking at associations in people’s minds that even they don’t know they have. For example if people have some sort of negative association with something that could be subsconscious this technique could pick it up.

The test can only distinguish between two concepts which for marketing purposes might be a little bit blind but it could be used to explore people’s unconsciousness.

8. What is the Repertory grid?

The Repertory grid is an old technique devised by a psychologist called Kelly (i.e. George Kelly, 1955, ”Personal Construct Theory”). This was originally a clinical technique to understand individuals and how the brain categorises things e.g. how they explore the world, how they classify objects into good or bad….. It is a simple technique that becomes almost like a structured interview exploring different elements in people’s lives. These elements could be objects, people, concepts etc.

The reason it is so powerful is that the interviewer does not go with a fixed set of questions. Instead through exploring people’s minds, using their vocabulary, the interviewer discovers what sort of descriptors they put on these elements and what sort of words they use e.g. emotive words, rational words, characteristics of people etc.

Over the years the Rep grid has been simplified by marketing people and they have even come up with ideas of using it in groups. So now you have the idea that you can put numbers in the Rep grids (which Kelly never did) and therefore you can take averages between people, which, if you think back to the original idea, is a funny concept i.e., that you can average two people’s brains.

But I suppose if it is limited to brands you can actually look for similarities and averages between the grids.

9. How can the Rep grid be used in business today?

The Rep grid could be used for getting inside people’s heads in a way that would be otherwise unobtainable. For example with the small scale research such as the Rep grid you can go in depth rather than width.

Dr. Nigel Marlow on
Consumer and Business Psychology
Interview by Steven Walden,
Principal Consultant and Head of Research at Beyond Philosophy
Transcript by Zhecho Dobrev

Steven Walden
Steven Walden is Director of Customer Experience at leading CX firm TeleTech Consulting (which includes Peppers and Rogers, iKnowtion and RogenSi). Steven is instrumental in efforts to develop the CX practice promoting thought leadership and CX community engagement and IP development. Prior to TeleTech he was Director of CX at Ericsson, developing their Experience Management Centre and also Head of Research specialising in emotion and journey mapping agency side.


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