Welcome to a huge resource on emotional marketing.

I’ve always wanted to write this guide — because emotion is a critical topic. But I kept procrastinating because the amount of research is intimidating.

Well…I finally tackled it.

Battling the Emotion Research Monster
How it went down

In this guide, I summarize everything you need to know. You’ll learn how emotions influence decisions. And you’ll learn how to use that information to influence perception and behavior.

PDF Bonus: This article is 5,879 words. Click to download the PDF so that you can reference it later.

What is Emotional Marketing?

Emotional marketing uses emotion to influence consumers. Shocking, right?

You can use emotion to achieve different goals:

1. Cultivate a Perception

Yogurt that tastes good vs. yogurt that is healthy

2. Influence Behavior

Buying a yogurt

3. Maximize an Experience

Eating a yogurt

What is Emotion?

Emotions are mental states that encapsulate our feelings — whether feelings in general or feelings toward an object.

That’s the “standard” answer.

But here’s the real answer: we don’t know.

“Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.” (Barrett, 2017, pp. xii)

What’s the problem?

Emotions don’t have discrete labels — like happy, sad, angry. Awkwardly, we developed that terminology before we understood emotion.

Researchers are now trying to change the terminology (see Barrett, 2006). But meh, it’s probably too late.

So then, what is emot— err, “those things” we feel?

Think of emotion like a color spectrum.

Rainbow color spectrum

Sure, we use distinct labels (e.g., red, green, blue). However, those hues are overarching categories. In actuality, each color has a plethora (nearly infinite) number of variations.

We have so many variations of “red” that it would be counterproductive — and near impossible — to label every one.

Red Color Spectrum With Different Variations
One slight adjustment (left or right) generates a new color

Emotions are similar.

Until recently, we treated emotion with definitive borders — which limited our understanding. Instead, emotions are infinite. And we need to view them as a spectrum (see Barrett, 2017).

Why Do Humans Feel Emotion?

We developed emotions because of their adaptive advantages in evolution (Cosmides & Tooby, 2000).

They served two purposes:

  1. Bodily Adaptations
  2. Social Adaptations

Bodily Adaptations

Our ancestors survived because their body adapted to various conditions:

“[some actions] require a rapid response (e.g., responding to the appearance of a predator) while others require a more gradual, sustained response (e.g., regulating blood flow to maintain core body temperature).” (Levenson, 2003, pp. 349)

Those internal responses also changed our outward appearance. When we feel angry, our face reddens and our pupils constrict (Levenson, 2003). Those visible changes were adaptive in social interactions…

Social Adaptations

We developed visible indicators for emotion because they helped communicate and decipher intentions.

  • If we see an angry person, we can be alert
  • If we need to scare someone, we can show anger

Those cues also triggered emotional contagion:

“For social species, there are enormous advantages to having a mechanism by which emotions can be transferred quickly and efficiently across individuals. In humans, emotion contagion serves a number of functions including: (a) alerting, (b) calming, and (c) empathy.” (Levenson, 2003, pp. 357)

If our ancestors noticed a friend running toward them with a fearful expression, they could experience the same emotion to prepare for an attack or escape.

How Do Emotions Influence Our Decisions?

Now, the fun part. I compiled the following model to summarize the effects of emotion. I’ll explain everything afterward.

Basically, the antecedents are different types of emotion. Those emotions lead to certain behaviors, which — in turn — lead to various consequences.

My Emotion Model

My model prioritizes simplicity over complexity. If you want more depth, you can refer to the Affect-Infusion Model (Forgas, 1995) and Cognitive Appraisal Theory (Bagozzi, Gopinath, & Nyer, 1999).


Three types of emotion influence our decisions (Cohen, Pham, & Andrade, 2006):

  1. Integral Emotion
  2. Incidental Emotion
  3. Task-Related Emotion

Integral Emotion

Integral emotions are directly related to the decision.

Staring at yogurt
I friggen love yogurt.

You feel these emotions from the current options or expected outcome (e.g., our happiness after choosing Option B).

Incidental Emotion

Incidental emotions are current mood states.

Looking at nice weather
Today is a great day.

This principle is also called feelings-as-information because we use our current moods (i.e., feelings) to construct our judgments (i.e., information).

In a classic study, Schwarz & Clore (1983) asked people to rate their happiness with life. On rainy days, people were significantly less happy with their overall life. Essentially, they asked: how do I feel today? Their dampened mood — which stemmed from the rain — was misattributed to their overall life.

Task-Related Emotion

Task-related emotion involves decision characteristics.

Choosing yogurt from store shelf
Gah, so many options.

If you need to choose a single option among many favorable options, you might feel anticipated regret. Those negative feelings could influence your decision (e.g., postpone the purchase).


All three emotions, in turn, lead to various intermediary effects:

  1. Attention Scope
  2. Informational Focus
  3. Social Focus
  4. Regulatory Focus
  5. Temporal Focus
  6. Certainty Level

Attention Scope

Emotions influence our decisions because they adjust the scope of our attention.

Emotions narrowing or broadening attention, based on valence

Negative emotions — like fear — narrow attention (Wichary, Mata, & Rieskamp, 2016). If your child is missing, you’d have trouble thinking of something else. According to your brain: missing child > an episode of The Bachelorette.

Positive emotions — like happiness — broaden attention (Rowe, Hirsh, & Anderson, 2007). When our ancestors were happy, they were in a safe environment (where broad attention could help them search for resources).

Informational Focus

Emotions also influence the type of information that we consider.

Concrete Imagery

We rely more heavily on concrete imagery.

Imagining a mental picture

In one study, people preferred an insurance plan that covered death by terrorism, compared to a plan that covered death by any reason (Johnson et al., 1993). Even though the second plan covered any reason — including terrorism — ironically, people found it less appealing.

In another study, people were more likely to donate $5 to an African girl named Rokia, compared to the same appeal for “millions of people” (Small, Loewenstein, & Slovic, 2007). We have trouble envisioning millions of people. But we easily see one child in need.

Construal Level

Emotions influence our construal level (Labroo & Patrick, 2008).

Viewing a basketball up close or far away

  • Negative emotions — because they narrow attention — trigger low construals. We focus on nitty gritty details.
  • Positive emotions — because they broaden attention — trigger high construals. We focus on abstract information and overall gists.
Sensory Focus

Emotions influence our perception of sensory input.

Touching vs. Visualizing

It’s called affect-gating (King & Janiszewski, 2011). In particular:

“…consumers in a negative affective state experience enhanced sensitivity to the tactile benefits of products, whereas consumers in a positive affective state experience enhanced sensitivity to the visual benefits of products.” (King & Janiszewski, 2011, pp. 697)

Those responses were adaptive in evolution. When we feel a negative emotion, we’re usually in trouble. We’re hurt. We’re lost. We need warmth. To survive, we needed a mechanism that guided us toward physical touch in those negative states.

And…that’s what happened.

Our brain developed circuitry to increase pleasure from tactile stimulation in negative states.

Positive emotions are different:

“…juvenile mammals in a positive affective state are organismically sufficient. To the extent that neural circuitry could induce a juvenile in a positive affective state to explore its environment (i.e., mitigate future risks or seek diversified sources of rewards), its chances of survival would increase.” (King & Janiszewski, 2011, pp. 697-698)

Thus, when feeling positive, our brain increases pleasure from visual stimulation. That means we’re more persuaded by visual aesthetics (Pham & Avnet, 2004).

Mood Consistency

Emotions influence our decisions because we focus on “mood-consistent information (Adaval, 2001).

Focusing on Respective Information Valence

Consider a vacation to Mexico.

  • Happy people place more importance on favorable attributes (e.g., sitting on the beach).
  • Sad people place more importance on unfavorable attributes (e.g., cost of the trip).

We place more importance on mood-consistent information because we (falsely) think that it’s more accurate:

“When extraneous affect is similar in valence to one’s affective reactions to this information, it can make these reactions appear more appropriate or valid and, therefore, can increase the perception that one’s feelings about the information have been assessed correctly.” (Adaval, 2001, pp. 3)

Plus, we actively seek mood-consistent information — especially when feeling negative. That’s why sad people listen to sad songs. The music is a replacement for an empathetic friend.

“We propose that mood-congruent aesthetic stimuli, akin to an empathetic friend, can provide mood-sharing, emotionally connected experience through which people feel that their emotion is understood, cared about, supported, and validated.” (Lee, Andrade, & Palmer, 2013, pp. 390)

Social Focus

Emotions orient us toward the self or others.

Looking Outward vs. Looking Inward

Consider pride and contentment:

  • Pride increases social focus. We’re motivated to attract public attention —indicated by our puffed out chest and raised chin. This emotion helped our ancestors establish dominance.
  • Contentment reduces social focus. When we feel content, we’re satiated. Since we satisfied our needs, we prefer a safe environment to savor our contentment.

In both cases, that focus influences our desire for products:

“…pride enhanced the desire for clothing to be seen by others (e.g., clothing for going out) but not for clothing to be worn around the house… contentment enhanced the desire for clothing to be worn around the house but not for clothing for going out.” (Griskevicius, Shiota, & Nowlis, 2010, pp. 246)

Regulatory Focus

Emotions influence our propensity to acquire or reject.

Pushing Something Away vs. Pulling Something In

Consider disgust and sadness. Both emotions are negative, but they trigger different effects.

  • With disgust, we want to push something away. That emotion helped our ancestors reject toxic stimuli.
  • With sadness, we want to change our circumstances. That emotion could makes us more likely to pull something closer.

In one study, disgust reduced selling prices (because people wanted to get rid of their possession). Sadness increased buying prices (because people wanted to acquire something new to change their situation; Lerner, Small, & Loewenstein, 2004).

Even neutral emotions — like hunger — trigger acquisition or rejection:

“…hunger is likely to activate general concepts and behavioral knowledge associated with acquisition. These acquisition concepts, once accessible in memory, may influence subsequent decisions to acquire objects, even when these objects (say, binder clips) are clearly unable to satisfy the hunger motive.” (Xu, Schwarz, & Wyer, 2015, pp. 2688)

Temporal Focus

Emotions orient us toward the past, present, or future.

Nostalgia is past, joy is present, hope is future

That “temporal focus” influences our decisions. For instance, when we’re focused on the future, we have better self-control. In one study, people ate fewer M&Ms when researchers induced hopefulness (Winterich & Haws, 2011).

Certainty Level

Emotions have different levels of certainty:.

Fear has low certainty, Anger has high certainty

Consider anger and fear (Tiedens & Linton, 2001).

  • When fearful, we’re less certain about a future outcome.
  • When angry, we’re certain about the source of our anger.

More importantly, we can misattribute those feelings of certainty or uncertainty (Lerner & Keltner, 2001).

  • Fearful gamblers experience more uncertainty. They feel like their odds of winning are more unpredictable, and they stop gambling.
  • Angry gamblers misattribute their certainty. They feel certain about the source of their anger, and they confuse that “certainty” with the likelihood of winning.


The previous factors extend their influence in subsequent ways:

  1. Processing Depth
  2. Decision Speed
  3. Value Assessment
  4. Probability Estimation
  5. Choice Behavior

Processing Depth

Emotions influence our decisions because they influence the extent of mental processing.

Positive emotions trigger heuristic processing, negative emotions trigger systematic processing

One factor is certainty level (Tiedens & Linton, 2001).

  • High-certainty emotions (e.g., anger) trigger heuristic processing. We feel more certain about our emotions, and we misattribute those feelings to our certainty about the decision. We don’t need to think carefully because we’re already sure.
  • Low-certainty emotions (e.g., fear) trigger systematic processing. We feel less certain about our emotions (and thus the decision). So we feel obligated to scrutinize everything.

Another factor is valence (see Herr et al., 2012).

  • Positive emotions trigger heuristic processing. Since positive emotions signal a safe environment, we feel safe making a decision.
  • Negative emotions trigger systematic processing. Since negative emotions signal a problematic environment, we feel obligated to carefully deliberate.

Decision Speed

Similarly, emotions influence our decisions because they reduce the length of deliberating.

Emotions spark immediate decisions

Our emotion system is anchored in the present (Chang & Pham, 2012). When we feel emotion, we’re quicker to decide, and we’re drawn toward options that provide immediate benefits. And that makes sense. Our ancestors developed emotion to help with urgent choices (e.g., fight or flight).

Value Assessment

Emotions influence our decisions because they influence our perception of value (see Lerner & Keltner, 2000).

Relative Value

Generally, we use two methods to calculate value:

  • Cardinal Utility — Absolute value on a quantitative scale
  • Ordinal Utility — Relative value compared to other options

Our emotions use ordinal utility (Pham et al., 2015).

Emotions spark comparative value assessment

Employees experience more happiness — not when you raise their salary by an absolute amount— but when you raise it above coworkers’ salaries.

Why the focus on relativity?

Again, it stems from evolution. When our ancestors experienced emotion, they weren’t calculating how much they should set aside for retirement. They were comparing options:

  • Should I fight or run away?
  • Should I hunt or stay?
  • Should I do A or B?

Those choices don’t require absolute measurements. They require comparative assessments: is A > B or is B > A?

Scope Insensitivity

Our emotions have trouble with scope.

Emotions are scope insensitive

In other words:

“…when people rely on feeling, they are sensitive to the presence or absence of a stimulus (i.e., the difference between 0 and some scope) but are largely insensitive to further variations of scope.” (Hsee & Rottenstreich, 2004, pp. 23)

For example, Hsee and Rottenstreich (2004) measured willingness to pay for a CD set of Madonna. First, they asked participants unrelated questions to prime a mindset (rational or emotional). Then, they asked how much they would pay for a 5- or 10-CD set.

Based on their mindset, people used a different process to calculate their willingness to pay:

  • Rational Group. People calculated how much they would pay for a single CD (e.g., $3). Then, they multiplied that figure by the number of CDs (e.g., $15 for the 5-CD set, $30 for the 10-CD set).
  • Emotional Group. People based this calculation on their feelings toward Madonna. Since people had the same feelings, regardless whether the collection was a 5 or 10 CD set, their willingness to pay was consistent (roughly $20 in both sets).

Likewise, people feel similar emotion at varying levels — like a true story vs. fictional story (Ebert & Meyvis, 2014). We become so absorbed in emotional events (e.g., fictional story) that we fail to consider distancing information (e.g., did it really happen?).

Similarly, when waiting for an electric shock, people felt the same level of stress with a 5%, 50%, or 100% chance of receiving the shock (Monat, Averill, & Lazarus, 1972). The looming image of a shock was the only ingredient necessary.

Probability Estimation

Scope insensitivity and concrete imagery influence our estimates of future probabilities.

Imagine that you need to pull a red jelly bean from a jar of white beans. Based on your gut, which group looks more appealing?

One group with many white and red beans, while another group has few white beans and one red bean

You probably chose Group 1 — with more red beans, right?

Denes-Raj and Epstein (1994) ran that same contest. Most people people chose Group 1, even when they knew Group 1 had lower odds of winning:

“Subjects reported that although they knew the probabilities were against them, they felt they had a better chance when there were more red beans.” (Denes-Raj & Epstein, 1994, pp. 819)

It doesn’t matter if you have a 1 in 100,000,000 chance of winning the lottery…the mere presence of that mental image is persuasive.

Rolling around with money in bed
How I imagine it

Choice Behavior

When people evaluate items sequentially, emotion has the greatest impact on the first item (Qiu & Yeung, 2007).

Emotion influencing evaluation of first item in sequence

Why does that happen?

It involves our misattribution of emotion. When we encounter the first option, we perceive that option as the source of our mood. Subsequent options are less impactful because we’ve already attributed our emotion:

“…once individuals have attributed their affect to one source (the first option), they are less likely to attribute this affect to other sources (the second and the third options)…” (Yeung & Qiu, 2006, pg. 2)

If we’re feeling good when viewing that first option, then surely, it must be due to that option.

When Should You Use Emotional Appeals?

Before deciding which emotion to target, you should decide whether to target emotion at all.

Emotional appeals will be more effective in these conditions:

  1. Immediate Decisions
  2. Independent Decisions
  3. Uncertain Decisions
  4. Hedonic Options
  5. Acquisition Framing
  6. Older Demographics

Immediate Decisions

Since our emotion system is anchored in the present, we rely on emotions for immediate decisions:

“…affective feelings are relied on more (weighted more heavily) in judgments whose outcomes and targets are closer to the present than in those whose outcomes and targets are temporally more distant.” (Chang & Pham, 2012, pg. 1)

However, an “immediate” decision depends on context. In one study, students imagined that graduation was either next month or next year. When graduation was sooner, students were more likely to rent an emotional apartment (e.g., breathtaking view) than a rational apartment (e.g., closer to subway; Chang & Pham, 2012).

Emotional apartments were chosen when deadline was closer

The basic strategy: if your customer has limited time to decide, then target their emotion.

Other tactics…

Tactic: Reduce Decision Times for Hedonic Products

You added an item to your cart. We reserved it for the next 2 hours.

If your product is inherently emotional — like fancy shoes — then speed up the decision:

  • Emphasize limited quantities (e.g., only 2 in stock)
  • Give time-sensitive discounts (e.g., on sale this week)
  • Minimize product availability (e.g., only sold in the winter)

Tactic: Place Emotional Appeals Near the Purchase

Emotional appeals near time of purchase decision

Perhaps you sell a product through an automated email funnel. In that case, move your emotional appeals toward the end of the funnel — closer to the final decision.

Tactic: Place Hedonic Products Near the Checkout

Impulse purchases near checkout of grocery store

In retail stores, impulse purchases are usually hedonic (e.g., gum, chocolate, gossip magazines). That makes sense — because people have limited time to decide.

You can follow that same approach in eCommerce. When you upsell items near the checkout, recommend hedonic products.

Tactic: Reduce Waiting Times for Emotional Benefits

Video shown after purchase of shoes

Because emotion is anchored in the present, it makes people impatient (see Van den Bergh, Dewitte, & Warlop, 2008).

Suppose that you sell a hedonic product (e.g., stylish clothing), but the benefits are delayed (e.g., shipping time). You could provide another benefit in the meantime (e.g., access to a video with fashion tips about that product). You’ll provide an immediate benefit AND upsell other products…a win-win.

Oh, and always offer expedited shipping for emotional purchases.

Independent Decisions

Emotional appeals are more effective when customers are deciding alone.

Emotional appeals work better for individuals

When choosing for a group of people — with public consequences — we feel compelled to choose a “safer” option:

“After all, in the case that the decision turns out poorly, one can still demonstrate the original merit of the decision if it is easy to justify.” (Hong & Chang, 2015, pp. 1394)

In B2B settings — where decisions impact many people — don’t rely on emotions alone. Always provide utilitarian reasons so that buyers have an escape route with their colleagues (e.g., “Well, I bought it because of [rational reason]”).

Group Meeting: "But the salesperson told me it was the deal of a lifetime"

Uncertain Decisions

Uncertainty can be good or bad:

  • Good Uncertainty: contents of a gift
  • Bad Uncertainty: stock market collapse

Both lead to a greater reliance on emotion (Faraji-Rad & Pham, 2016). When people are uncertain, they use “constructive thinking” — which acts like a floodgate for emotion to enter (see Forgas, 1995 for his Affect-Infusion Model)

Tactic: Give Emotional Appeals to Customers on the Fence

When customers are stubbornly indecisive, we usually resort to rational arguments. However, albeit counterintuitive, their uncertain mindset is ripe for an emotional appeal.

Hedonic Options

It’s probably obvious, but just to confirm, emotional appeals are more effective for hedonic products (i.e., emotional options). The main reason stems from mood-consistent information (Pham, Geuens, & Pelsmacker, 2013).

Acquisition Framing

Emotional appeals are more effective when you describe what your product provides, rather than what it prevents (Cohen et al., 2006).

Emotion: "Here's what our product provides"

When focused on acquisition goals, we perceive our emotions to be more accurate (Pham & Avnet, 2009). We find emotional benefits more persuasive, and we rely more heavily on peripheral information (e.g., visual aesthetics), rather than substantive information (e.g., logical reasons; Pham & Avnet, 2004).

Older Demographics

Emotional appeals are more effective for older demographics. And the reason is pretty interesting (Williams & Drolet, 2005).

Emotion works better for older consumers

In any context, we view time as limited or expansive — which changes our behavior. It’s called socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999).

  • When time is expansive (e.g., young adults), we focus on knowledge goals. We spend more time planning so that we prepare for the future.
  • When time is limited (e.g., older adults), we focus on emotional goals. We spend more time with close relationships so that we enjoy the present.

That’s why emotional appeals work better for older demographics (Williams & Drolet, 2005).

Interestingly, though, time perception is malleable. Your perspective changes in different contexts. College freshman have an expansive perspective, so they prefer making new friends. Seniors, however, have a limited perspective. So they prefer spending time with current friends (Frederickson, 1995).

What are the Types of Emotions?

Lewis (2000) proposes three categories, but I’ll describe four:

  1. Reflex Emotions
  2. Core Emotions
  3. Conscious Emotions
  4. Social Emotions

Although emotions aren’t discrete categories, I’ll be using specific labels…so indulge me.

Reflex Emotions (0 – 3 months)

When we’re born, we experience two — and only two — emotions.

Reflex Emotions: Contentment and Distress


We’re too young to distinguish positive emotions, so “contentment” captures everything. If our needs are satisfied, then we’re good.


Likewise, when our needs are unsatisfied, we’re distressed. And we’ll cry to communicate it.

Core Emotions (3 – 6 Months)

After a while, our body can distinguish between various emotions within contentment and distress.

Core Emotions: Interest, Happiness, Sadness, etc.


Survival depended on exploration and learning (see Loewenstein, 1994). Without interest, we died.


We feel happy when we see familiar stimuli (Lewis, 2000).


If evolution is so great, then what’s the purpose of sadness? If a family member dies, that person is already dead. It’s serving no purpose.

That’s true — bereavement isn’t helpful. However, the UNDERLYING function is useful in other situations (Frijda, 2000).

If you imagine that person dying, then you’ll feel sad (and you’ll know to avoid killing that person). Or if you’re a child seeking your mother, then sadness — accompanied with crying — can retrieve her.

Since those functions are more important, you need to endure sadness elsewhere.

Conscious Emotions (0.5 – 2.5 years)

As we develop our consciousness, we experience other emotions.

Conscious Emotions: Fear, etc.


Fear requires more cognitive development:

“…in order for children to show fearfulness, they have to be capable of comparing the event that causes them fearfulness with some other event, either internal or external” (Lewis, 2000, pg. 277)

For example, children need to identify that a stranger’s face is different from a familiar face.

Social Emotions (2.5+ years)

Along our development, we acquire self-awareness. We begin interacting socially, and we can measure our behavior against a standard (Lewis, 2000).

Social Emotions: Anger, Empathy, Jealousy, Embarrassment, Shame, etc.


We feel angry when people aren’t treating us with enough importance. Our ancestors developed anger to improve their welfare:

“Acts or signals of anger communicate that, unless the target increases the weight it places on the angry individual’s welfare sufficiently, the actor will inflict costs on, or withdraw benefits from, the target.” (Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2009, pp. 15074)

Those researchers found something interesting too. Certain people naturally had greater bargaining power:

  • Some could inflict more costs (e.g., powerful brutes)
  • Some could give more benefits (e.g., attractive mates)

Since those people had greater leverage, they felt “entitled” to more welfare. They felt anger more easily — even in fair transactions — because they expected more.

Fast forward to today, and we still experience those evolutionary forces. Today, stronger men and attractive women are more prone to anger (Sell et al., 2009).

In fact, physically stronger politicians are more likely to use military force (Sell et al., 2009). Based on their individual strength, they falsely believe that other nations will be less likely to retaliate.

Don’t you feel safer now?


Most mammals possess empathy. If an offspring is distressed, parents need to feel enough emotion and motivation to resolve that distress (De Waal, 2008).

Over time, though, empathy started playing a larger role in human society. We accomplish more — and live better — when we cooperate with others.


We developed jealousy for adaptive reasons:

  • Males needed jealousy because female infidelity lowered their likelihood of reproduction
  • Females needed jealousy because male infidelity lowered their likelihood of acquiring resources

Therefore, males and females felt different jealousy. Males were more jealous with sexual infidelity, while females were more jealous with emotional infidelity. And, thanks to the nature of evolution, that’s still true today (Buss et al., 1992).


After committing a social blunder, our ancestors needed to restore social bonds. They developed embarrassment — characterized by a submissive posture and blush— to indicate remorse for a transgression. That’s how they reclaimed their position in society (Keltner & Buswell, 1997).


Similarly, shame forces people to conform. Our ancestors needed the capacity for shame so that they would accept their share of responsibility (Lewis, 2000).

Laying in hammock: "You guys can hunt. Ima chill here."

Our ancestors were pretty pissed at those who didn’t conform.

Which Emotions Should You Target?

In this section, I’ll explain criteria to help you choose the best emotion for your situation.

  1. Two Overall Strategies
  2. Which Valence: Positive vs. Negative?
  3. Which Arousal: Low vs. High?
  4. Which Temporal Focus: Past vs. Present vs. Future?

Two Overall Strategies

Most of the recommendations comprise one of two approaches.

Strategy 1: Feeling-is-for-Doing

Zeelenberg et al. (2008) recommend a feeling-is-for-doing approach. Every emotion serves an evolutionary purpose. Therefore, if you need to extract a specific behavior, simply target an emotion that aligns with that behavior.

“Shopping after lunch, for example, may motivate a contented person to go to Crate and Barrel to shop for home products. But shopping after reading a positive review of one’s work may lead a proud person to purchase a new outfit for going out in public.” (Griskevicius, Shiota, & Nowlis, 2010, pp. 247)

Some examples:

  • If you sell stylish clothing, trigger pride. Those people will be focused on impressing others.
  • If you want to steal customers from your competitor, trigger fear. Those people will be focused on escape.
  • If you want people to donate, trigger guilt. Those people will be focused on resolving a past transgression.

Strategy 2: Mood Congruence

If you’re unsure which emotion to target, you could target emotions that are congruent with your product.

For example, people were more likely to choose an adventurous vacation when they felt excited, whereas people were more likely to choose a serene trip when they felt peaceful (Kim, Park, and Schwarz, 2010).

People chose adventurous trip when they felt excited. They chose serene trip when they felt peaceful.

Those congruent appeals were effective because of our tendency to misattribute emotion:

“…consumers who read an advertisement with specific emotional product claims are essentially asking themselves, “Would this product make me feel the way it promises?” In doing so, they are likely to misread preexisting incidental feelings as part of their reaction to the product.” (Kim, Park, & Schwarz, 2010, pp. 985)

But there are exceptions, which I’ll explain next.

Which Valence: Positive vs. Negative?

You can position emotion on two dimensions: valence and arousal (Barret & Russell, 1998).

Bipolar Structure of Emotion

I just explained that you should usually target congruent emotions. However, negative emotions are one exception. Thanks to evolution, when people feel a negative emotion, they feel motivated to change their circumstances — so they’re drawn toward incongruent appeals:

“…when consumers are in a negative mood, we find that they prefer products that are incongruent with both the level of arousal and the valence of their current affective state.” (Di Muro & Murray, 2012, pp. 574)

If customers will be in a negative mood state, consider choosing emotions on the opposing side of the circumplex.

Also, as a reminder, here are other factors that I explained earlier.

Summary Table of Emotional Effects from Valence

Which Arousal: Low vs. High?

This choice depends on your goal.

Low Arousal Emotions Influence Perception, High Arousal Emotions Influence Actions

  • High arousal emotions trigger immediate actions. People are more likely to share online content when they’re feeling energized (Berger, 2011).
  • Low arousal emotions cultivate favorable perceptions. When people are less aroused, they adopt high construals, which inflate perceived value (Pham, Hung, & Gorn, 2011). People focus on the big picture, so they pay more attention to desirability (e.g., the appeal of a vacation) than feasibility (e.g., timing, cost).

Which Temporal Focus: Past vs. Present vs. Future?

Emotions focus on different time periods.


Past-oriented emotions (e.g., nostalgia) might be most effective. Those emotions can trigger an unfulfilled need:

“…nostalgia represented in the advertisement is not attainable. When faced with such a situation, consumers may have a more favorable response to the product by transferring their unfulfilled desire to return to the past to a desire for the product.” (Muehling & Sprout, 2004, pp. 32)


The next most helpful emotions are presented-oriented. Those emotions are particularly useful when your product is calming:

“…excitement and calm both have a distinct temporal focus: whereas people tend to feel excited for something that they anticipate will happen in the future, they tend to feel calm when soaking up the present moment.” (Mogilner, Aaker, & Kamvar, 2012, pp. 430)

That principle applies to product evaluations:

  • When focused on the future, we prefer exciting options.
  • When focused on the present, we prefer calming options.


Unless your product is very exciting, you should avoid future-directed emotions — like hope. Those emotions increase self-control (Winterich & Haws, 2011), which isn’t great for emotional purchases.

Plus, despite having a positive valence, those emotions are characterized by uncertainty. And we can misattribute our uncertainty to other aspects of a decision (e.g., uncertain desire for the product).

How to Trigger Emotion

We feel different types of emotion: integral, incidental, and task-related. How can you trigger them?

Strategy: Choose Contexts Where People Are Experiencing Emotion

Instead of directly triggering emotion, seek places where people naturally feel your target emotions (Kim, Park, & Schwarz, 2010).

Ad Placements

When choosing ad placements, consider the context:

Spotify → Upbeat Playlist
Upbeat playlist on Spotify
Increases arousal, which increases propensity for action.
Hulu → TV Show From Past
Banner of The Golden Girls
Triggers nostalgia, which sparks an unfulfilled need that your product could solve.
Huffington Post → Style Section
Style section
Increases social focus, which directs attention to the public self.

In all cases, people are experiencing a particular emotion. If you then present your offering, people are more likely to misattribute their emotion:

“Instead of asking themselves how they generally feel about the product, they are likely to ask a more specific question: “Will this product make me feel the way it promises?” In answering this question, the specific phenomenal quality of the feeling (rather than its global valence) looms large.” (Kim, Park, & Schwarz, 2010, pp. 989)

Times of the Day

Likewise, people might have the most energy (i.e., high arousal) in the late morning, whereas they might feel tired (i.e., low arousal) at night.

11:00am is high arousal. 11:00pm is low arousal.

You could plan segmentation strategies around those time periods.

  • In the late morning, your website could recommend exciting products (e.g., sports equipment).
  • At night, your website could recommend calming products (e.g., blankets)

You could also adjust promotional displays in brick-and-mortar stores, based on those time periods.

Physical Locations

Your physical location also influences emotion. If you’re in a popular mall — near restaurants — then many patrons are eating before or after.

  • If people haven’t eaten, they’ll be hungry (in a state of acquisition)
  • If people already ate, they’ll be full (in a state of satiation)

But always consider logistics. Even though people evaluate products more favorably when they’re hungry, they might postpone purchasing to avoid bringing items into a restaurant.

Strategy: Emotional Schema

In terms of directly triggering emotion, you should consider network theory.

Our brain is comprised of an associative network. When we view a relationship between two concepts, we form a connection between them. Later, you simply need to active one concept in order to activate the other.

Watch this quirky video for more detail:

Emotions are no different.

We attach certain emotions to certain concepts. If you prime those concepts, you can trigger the corresponding emotions.

Some examples…



Cool colors and low arousal. Warm colors and high arousal.

Evolution created connections between color and arousal:

  • Warm colors (e.g., red, orange, yellow) are associated with the sun, thus increasing arousal.
  • Cool colors (e.g., blue, green, purple) are associated with relaxation, thus decreasing arousal.

Refer to my guide on color psychology for more detail.

Evolutionary Threats

Picture of angry person and picture of tiger

In my guide to visual attention, I explain why evolutionary threats (e.g., angry faces, tigers) capture more attention than modern threats (e.g., cars). Well, those threatening stimuli also influence emotion.


Stick figure with "Censored" banner

Yup — this one too (Most et al., 2007).

Strategy: Emotional Contagion

Emotions are contagious — they transfer from person to person. If you want to trigger emotion, then show people experiencing that same emotion.


Storytelling is a huge topic for another article. Stories are powerful because they trigger empathetic mechanisms. We inject ourselves into the story via narrative transportation (Green & Brock, 2000).

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are powerful because we distinguish emotion based on those features (Ekman, 1993).

Most designers show people with their bodies, which restricts emotion. Instead, you should enlarge the face — the epicenter of emotional cues.

Closeup of facial expression


Emotional marketing is extremely intricate. I still see many holes in the research — especially on the “triggers” of emotion. What are the best ways to “frame” an emotional topic? How can you increase the intensity of emotions? Etc.

But hopefully this article was a good step forward. Feel free to download the PDF so that you can reference it later.