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The head or the heart? How are we making decisions nowadays?

Gary - 12 th May 2022

Making a big decision in our private life is never easy, but most of us like to convince ourselves that our thinking is more rational than emotional, that we have done our research and considered all the facts. But if we are brutally truthful, it’s likely that even on the biggest decisions, ‘feelings’ have more of a say than we like to admit and the heart tends to rule the head.

I used to think that this would not be the case when it came to decisions of national importance. Surely our leaders would have access to all the facts and bring careful consideration and rational argument to the decisions that matter to us all. Leave or Remain, lockdown or freedom, even going to war are big calls but I don’t believe for one minute that the head has 100% ruled the heart in deciding what to do. Of course, politics and ambition, rightly or wrongly, are part for the decision but the impression I get is that more and more ‘gut feel’ and emotion is seeping into decision making at all levels of life, about all sorts of things.

Head vs Heart
So I looked into it, and found some interesting research that suggests that this is the result of a fundamental long term shift in public attitude. The first evidence I found was a combined report from some universities in The Netherlands and the USA which analysed common words in millions of books, fictional and factual, in English and Spanish. For the period between 1850 and 1980 it revealed that the use of words which are about sentiments such as ‘feel’, ‘believe’ and ‘compassion’ had declined in favour of technical words like ‘experiment’, ‘determine’ and ‘conclusion’.

In 1980, the trend was reversed and the use of ‘feeling’ words accelerated and overtook the technical ones and it has really gathered pace in the last 3 years. Ok, so that is just one piece of evidence, but I think that you’d find it difficult to find many people who feel that the reverse of the heart ruling the is true and we have become more analytical than emotional as a society. This isn’t exactly the age of logical reasoning.

This led me to consider whether this ‘trend’ has made its way into business. The immediate thought is ‘no’. Business, and marketing in particular, is awash with various metrics and black box calculations that supposedly ‘guide’ decision making, but I have noticed the comeback of the notion of judgment and feel.

Let’s contrast a couple of instances we have recently experienced. 5 years ago a client conducted a segmentation at the 99.9% confidence limit. Doing this required in excess of 10,000 questionnaires despite our argument that 95% would have been enough and the difference in confidence would have very little impact on the results or the behaviours that resulted. We even argued that the extra £20k it would take to get to 99.9% represented a poor return on investment, but it didn’t wash with them.

Contrast this with a client which, six months ago, also wanted a segmentation of its very broad customer base. They were not interested in the numbers, or the science, just what made their customer tick so they could use it to guide the business. We duly delivered with a few focus groups and it’s been hugely successful in driving change and delivering focus throughout their business.

These two examples do not prove that a shift has occurred of course, but there does seem to be a subtle shift in sentiment in business which may have an impact on the research we do. More qualitative understanding will be needed to go with the quantitative measurement that seemed to rule the roost in recent years. If this proves right, it has to be a good thing. Business will benefit by loosening the straight jacket of endless measures and metrics which are often gathered in the wrong way, are misinterpreted, stifle creativity and innovation and deliver a whole load of ‘same ol, same ol’.

Qual and quant
A company with a dynamic and realistic balance of head and heart in decision making will almost always do better than those which religiously adhere to endless metrics or merely stick their finger in the air and hope for the best. At least that’s the way I feel.

At the 85% confidence level.
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Gary is the chairman and one of the original founders of Brand Vista. With over 20 years of brand experience both on the client and agency side he loves finding out what customers and consumers are really thinking and turning this knowledge into compelling brand propositions that succeed in the real world.
Find out more about Gary