By Bill Frayer

Slow Down, Calm Down and…Think


As we were watching television the other evening, we saw an advertisement for the umpteenth time featuring a very stricken-looking middle-aged woman talking about a young boy in Africa whose mother had died, leaving him to take care of his three younger brothers, often having to go without food himself so his brothers could eat. The ad ended showing the boy sitting and staring with a tear rolling down his cheek, and the woman narrator, on the verge of tears herself, begging the viewers to “please help!”

Now this is undoubtedly a very desperate situation, and the agency she represents may be doing good work, but the ad is an unapologetic appeal to emotion.

First of all, emotions are important and a vital part of our lives. But they can be used to influence our behavior (by getting us to give money to an organization we know nothing about), without giving enough information so we can make a rational decision. Advertisers know that we are more likely to part with our money when we are feeling pity (or fear or anger or love) than when we are thinking clearly. So they appeal to our raw emotions. It works.

I think the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, provide another good example. The television images of the attack were horrendous, and we didn’t, for quite some time, know that another attack wouldn’t come soon. People were feeling very afraid.   As a result, many Americans were willing to accept laws and regulations which limited our freedom, just to feel safe. People were willing to give the government broad powers they ordinarily would not even consider. One could argue that this fear has led to bad policy and to an unjustifiable war. People are motivated easily by fear. In circumstances like this, rational voices urging caution are drowned out.

The point here is that we need to understand that we will be motivated by our emotions, but we can also apply reasonable standards as well. In other words, expect to be emotional, but give yourself the time and resources to apply reasoning too.

Salespeople understand this. They expect potential buyers to be excited and carried away. They want us to make a decision quickly, before we have a chance to think about what we can afford or consider other options. Once we’ve thought it over, we may reach a more rational, decision.

We are always struggling between the reality we want to be true and the reality we actually face. We may think we want to live a healthy life, a stress-free life, which should lead to less of a need for medical care. After all, our emotions tell us we’d rather not worry about illness and just enjoy our lives. As a result, we may not make reasonable arrangements to cover our costs during a serious illness, because we don’t want to consider the possibility that we will get sick!

Good thinkers develop an ability to detect when they are feeling overwhelmed by emotions. When they’re feeling angry, they give themselves time to cool off. Recognize your tendency to experience emotions and separate that from your intention to think critically.

Next month I will look at the ambiguity of language.

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