Two Human Truths about Hot-State Decision Making

Aaron Reid
Ph.D. Chief Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

Understanding hot-state decision making can provide a significant short-term boon in purchase behavior. But ethically, and from a long-term business health perspective, we don’t want to sacrifice long-term consumer satisfaction for short-term reward.

The first note of solace on the ethical front is this: people do not respond emotionally to things they don’t value. Thus, if a consumer is responding emotionally to your product, it is because the value for that product is inherent in the consumer. The debate on consumer values, and the attempt to influence what consumers actually value, is better left to be battled on the socio-cultural level.

Consumer values are influenced heavily by culture and that cultural influence is in a continual state of evolution. For instance, in the U.S. there is currently a growing cultural value for sustainability and care for our natural environment. As the culture exerts its influence on the consumer, the emotional response to products and services that align with sustainability and environmentalism heightens, and the market then has a sure sign that these values are increasing in importance for consumers.

Thankfully, most enterprises are in the business of providing products that consumers value, rather than imbuing consumers with values. Those values are largely coming from external sources.

Second, from a business model perspective, a short-term visceral delight that is followed by deep post decision regret does not have any legs for sustained business growth. We do not want to induce regret in a consumer base whom we’re hoping will praise and recommend our products in the marketplace. This creates an interesting challenge for the marketer and product manager. How do we capitalize on hot-state decision making while simultaneously delivering a satisfying experience? Two basic human truths help answer this question and serve as guides in implementing hot-state decision making in your initiatives:

The first truth is that not all hot-state decision making is in conflict with long-term goals. In fact, inducing hot-state decision making within a context that is consistent with long-term goals is the perfect storm: you create immediate consumer delight without any lingering post-decision regret. Hot-states can be aroused in relation to long-term values, just as they can be for short-term visceral delight: all that is required is the evocation of emotion. Thus, if consumers are passionate about certain long-term values, then you can be sure that activating goals related to those values will arouse consumer emotion.

As an example, consider again the rising cultural values of sustainability and environmentalism. These are concepts that arouse a lot of emotion in certain segments of the population. From a hot-state decision making perspective this is ripe for capitalization.

If you offer a product or service that is consistent with these values, you are in a unique position to capitalize on hot-state decision-making while simultaneously delivering on consumers’ long-term values. Marketing that raises the salience of consumer environmental values will heighten in-the-moment arousal.

Delivering a product that satiates that desire produces an immediate sale that simultaneously avoids post-decision regret because it is in line with long-term values. This maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain.

If you are a marketer or product manager, you can put this first human truth to use by answering the question: which of my product benefits arouse emotion in the short-term while also arousing emotional satisfaction in the long-term?

The second truth is that the human condition is characterized by a constant state of reconciling short-term decisions with long-term goals. On a daily basis, consumers are faced with decisions that satisfy short-term needs while compromising long-term values. To reconcile these conflicts, consumers conduct a “mental accounting”, not allowing themselves to get too far afield from their ultimate goals. Consumers do this in two ways.

First, when consumers feel too deviated from those long-term goals, their decision making realigns naturally with those goals because they begin to feel greater emotion for choice options that put them back in sync with their long-term values. Second, consumers use post-decision justification to reconcile their short-term choices with their long-term goals. We call this justification “cognitive recalibration.”

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