Unicorn myth

The five myths about emotion – and their implications for CX professionals


Emotions are critical to decision-making. They tell us what is important ‘to us’ and enable fast decision-making when faced with a complex world of limited information. However, to ‘manage’ emotion we must also not fall into folklore and mythology.

24th Nov 2020
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Emotion is a big word! It’s also one that causes some confusion. For instance, most CX professionals believe that:

  1. Emotions are separate from cognition.
  2. Emotions are irrational.
  3. Emotions ‘drive’ customer behaviour.
  4. More positive emotion is always a good thing.
  5. The functional is not emotional.

This leads them to overweight their CX programmes towards: designing for delight, embedding emotional clues in journey maps and seeking to measure emotion's effect.

To be fair, this emphasis on emotion is not entirely incorrect. After all, emotions are critical to decision-making. They tell us what is important ‘to us’ and enable fast decision-making when faced with a complex world of limited information.

As Antonio Damasio, the famous neuroscientist said: “Without the filtering provided by emotions and their somatic markers, the data sets for any given decision — whether it’s what to get for lunch or whom to marry — would be overwhelming. The working memory can only juggle so many objects at once. To make the right call, you need to feel your way — or at least part of your way — there.”

However, to ‘manage’ emotion we must also not fall into folklore and mythology.

Myth 1: emotions are separate from cognition

To see emotion as the only influencer on consumer decision-making is wrong. Cognition is pretty important too!

Indeed, in psychology the current approach to emotion is that it is based primarily not on some automatic emotional cue but on how we first appraise a situation in light of our well-being and goals. Let me explain.

Imagine a football match. You have invited your friend along to see the game in which your favourite team is playing. Your friend doesn’t much like football but is coming along anyway. Halfway through the game your team scores a goal. What’s your emotional reaction? Happiness, of course. What’s your friend’s emotional reaction? Well, he might be happy for you, but couldn’t really care less about the game.

Here, the same game was being watched but the ‘emotional’ reaction was different because the meaningfulness of the event was different.

As the famous psychologist Lazarus put it: “Before emotion occurs, people make an automatic, often unconscious, assessment of what is happening and what it may mean for them or those they care about. From that perspective, emotion becomes not just rational but a necessary component of survival.”

For Lazarus, different emotions are elicited when situations are evaluated according to three categories:

  1. A relational aspect: the relationship between a person and the environment.
  2. A motivational aspect: an evaluation of a situation in relation to the achievement of one’s goals.
  3. A cognitive aspect: an appraisal or an evaluation of how relevant and significant a situation is to one's life.

Implications for CX professionals

Firstly, define emotional moments since these flag up important and salient customer experiences.

Secondly, understand the emotional context, since emotions are based on appraisals.

Finally, be deliberate and consistent in collating emotional data using the following approaches:

Engaging ethnography

Ethnography can help determine emotional effects at a deeper level. This is particularly important since customers and employees are often not good at relating back the full emotional experience, especially when emotional appraisals and emotions themselves are fleeting and often lack conscious expression.

Collecting narrative

Use narrative not scales to measure emotional content. The reason for this goes back to anthropology: in interpreting our experiences, customers use stories. For instance, no-one walks out of a store and says that was a great 8.5 out of 10 experience; and no-one evaluates each and every detail of their experience.                                             

Identifying appraisals 

Since emotions are grounded in appraisal (goals, wellbeing), just going with a prime set of emotions or sentiment classifications is not enough. Only by understanding the appraisal basis to emotion can we reveal ‘our real motivations’.

Quantifying appraisals and emotions can be done through applying algorithms to text. On the basis of say a 60% level of accuracy, this can be sufficient for mass data feeds such as social media.

However, my favoured method at least with smaller samples is to get customers or employees themselves to quantify their own narratives for emotional content and attendant appraisals.

There is an important reason for quantifying with the customer

Narrative is usually only the surface layer of meaning. How customers interpret their narrative and emotional response adds another meta-layer of meaning. As this information has to come from the respondent, it is best to enable self-quantification.

Increasingly, this focus on identifying the appraisal basis of emotional reaction is becoming important. So while an Own-brand can of beans may not evoke much competitive differentiation beyond price; a can of Heinz beans has a more ‘meaningful’ brand attachment and hence rebalances the cost-benefit equation.

Creating new appraisals

If you have a boring experience you’ll have boring drivers to your experience. So understand the importance of being open to creating new narratives around how we can get customers to appraise in a different more value creating way.

My argument is: only once we understand appraisal do we move to personas, since in appraisal-directed behaviour it’s not the ‘personality’ dynamics of the role or some other criteria that are important but an understanding of the appraisals themselves. 

Myth 2: Emotions are irrational

Here is a quote from Oatley and Johnson-Laird on the irrationality of emotions: “A crucial distinction, however, is whether an emotion is incidental to a reasoning task or emerges naturally from it. When an emotion arises from the task, a recent hypothesis is that reasoners are more motivated and more likely to consider possibilities that they would otherwise neglect.”

Hence, emotions are not only grounded in ‘the event’ but can act to enhance a rational response.

For sure we can act irrationally ‘with emotion’ but it is a step too far to say emotions are irrational. Especially when we simply would not understand what is rational for us without them.

An example of this comes from the work of the great neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. When dealing with a patient (Elliot) who could not feel emotion but still had unimpaired cognition, Professor Damasio found his decision-making was impaired. In Descartes Error he writes:

What was even more confounding is that Elliot could think up lots of options for a decision. When given assignments of assessing ethics (like whether or not to steal something for his family, Les Miserables–style), business (like whether to buy or sell a stock), or social goals (like making friends in a new neighborhood), he did great. But, even with all the idea generation, he could not choose effectively, or choose at all. “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio writes, “and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat.”

"Reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behavior."

Implications for CX professionals

Do not consider emotions as irrational and something to avoid. When dealing with human systems we cannot and should not ignore them. We equally should not try to ‘take out emotion’ through processes such as zero UX or considering customers only as cost-benefit calculators.

For instance, I cannot appraise you as different from the completion, hence my only appraisal is related to convenience and low price.

On the other hand, do not assume that we can ‘create’ irrationality in the customer by ‘making’ them emotional so they ‘irrationally’ stick with us for the long-term or spend more.

Myth 3: Emotions ‘drive’ customer behaviour

For sure, sometimes an emotional response does represent a driver. If a customer service rep is rude to me on the phone, I appraise it as a bad thing. I feel annoyed and never use you again. However, many times the fleeting moments that emotion represents are reflections of something else.

Small emotional clues (in the sense that I feel something so I attend to it) influence how I am disposed. For instance, consider how Luton Airport ask me to pay £1 for a security bag – where Heathrow do not. This is something I dislike and impacts on my emerging and changing sense of the quality of customer service (the appraisal) at the airport.

Quality of customer service in essence is a gross signal, a big ticket item but one defined by the many actions and interactions that are experienced by consumers within the airport - the weak signals.

Emotions emerge as we engage with an environment. Since they are marginally different each time, they lack the predictability we would normally look for in predictive analytics.

This nudge aspect of emotion is critical. It defines where we are and where we are heading in our relationship to a customer experience.

Hence, during my stay in the Leela hotel I felt disappointed that they had started turning off the air conditioning to rooms and removing fruit displays. In this case, the experience is not enough to turn us off from using the service again, but they are enough to degrade our engagement.

Emotions emerge as we engage with an environment. Since they are marginally different each time, they lack the predictability we would normally look for in predictive analytics. Hence we need to be aware of how they impact our disposition in the moment but we should not assume they drive behaviour.

Implications for CX professionals

Use real-time narrative collection and vector methods to uncover how emotional moments are affecting which direction customers are moving towards. This is not the same as an NPS target, this is about knowing how things are disposed and which narratives we need to amplify and dampen (the KPI: more stories like this, fewer like that).

Use the Cynefin framework to understand better whether appraisals and their emotional response fit into a complicated mechanistic approach or more nudge based dispositional approach (Complex).


Myth 4: More positive emotion is always a good thing

If emotions are for learning, then it stands to reason that they are not required if we have learnt: except perhaps in a muted way. 

If, for instance, we went to our local supermarket for the first time we might find ourselves feeling pleased because of its convenience and value for money. On the tenth occasion, though, our emotions are muted to the level of the category. We can still be tremendously loyal of course, but we don’t need to feel it!

Customer value creation is critical but that is not the same thing as ‘feeling’ positive. In fact, we can ‘love’ a hotel which is why we notice and feel strongly about the negative things. 

The journey mapping rule of trying to emotionalise every action is incorrect and just leads to annoyance.

Hence, in the fleeting moment we can see how we go to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, we love the place, but in the moment we have a mixture of feelings. I hate the way they continually ask if they can help you.

Whither the Kano model. Heading to delight (dependent on category) is not always a desired or stable condition.

And if you are still unsure about the importance of this emotional regulation I quote Baumeister:

“There is evidence that people spontaneously regulate their emotions (Forgas & Ciarrochi, 2002). Immediately after an emotional event, people in both happy and sad moods experience more mood-congruent than mood–incongruent thoughts. With time, however, the content of people’s thoughts moves toward the opposite valence. That is, after a few minutes, participants induced to feel sad were having happy thoughts, whereas those put into a happy mood had relatively more sad thoughts. This homeostatic emotion regulation fits nicely with the current analysis: mood-congruent thoughts help people learn the lessons of their previous behavior, but adaptive future behavior requires that emotion regulation take place.”

Personally, I don’t want every touchpoint on a customer journey to be something I evaluate as ‘positive’. And many times no experience is the best experience, especially when dealing with a hygienic and transactional one.

The journey mapping rule of trying to emotionalise every action is incorrect and just leads to annoyance: the kind of fakery that enforces customer service agents to overrule their own emotional intelligence by a corporate rule to say ‘how are you today’ when all I want is fast efficient and emotionless service.

Implications for CX professionals

Be relevant. Understand where and why you are seeking to create more of an emotional pull based on new or differentiated appraisals of concern to the customer. Do not create journey maps where every touchpoint is measured and required to score highly.

In measurement, do not seek to push for the highest scores (except if you are selling a Faberge egg or other hedonic experience). Focus on the well-satisfied consumer, one that is engaged and comfortable with the experience, that maybe would score an 8 out of 10 but sees the cost-to-benefit dimension as positive and differentiating.

Imperfections are to be loved. In an encounter between two people we are establishing the ground rules of a relationship. This means shifts and turns that cannot be mechanically directed by the brand and sometimes require negative or no emotion as part of their enactment.

Myth 5: The functional is not emotional

Finally, I end with a view on functional actions. Sure, most of the time downloading a web page, picking up a cup of coffee or making a phone call is a functional item. But we must always be aware that when the functional goes wrong what is hygienic can quickly turn into a moment of pain and stress.

If a functional activity like getting a mobile signal fails when I’m in a rush, sure I’ll get emotional!

If a functional activity is innovated, it has the potential to be invested with more emotional potentiality. For instance, look at how Amazon transformed a functional activity such as opening a box. If it can be made meaningfully different and of value to the customer then it can be emotional.

Implications for CX professionals

Ensure that loss aversion is adequately covered and responded to.

Consider functional experiences in the light of their potential to be innovated for emotional response.


Emotion table

Above all else, link your CEM efforts to creating value for the customer. Which is not the same as emotional response.

Steven Walden's new book, Customer Experience Management Rebooted – Are You An Experience Brand Or An Efficiency Brand? is available now.

A sample customer review:“We are at a moment in time when technologies are at last enabling businesses to make the profound shift from doing things ‘at customers’ to doing them ‘with customers’. This doesn’t just impact Marketing and Sales but, rather, every function, real and virtual, in the demand chain. All of which makes Steven Walden’s book timely and important. Important because it breathes new life into the CX argument at a time when it was becoming fossilized. Important because it clearly identifies and explains the subjective nature of CX: “Customer experience is the experience the customer has”. Important because it clarifies and articulates the intimate connection between Customer Experience and Customer Value, and the management of both of those domains. It's densely written in places, but I think this book is terrific.” David Pinder

Replies (6)

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By LinkedIn Group Member
20th Oct 2017 10:36

This comment posted in the MyCustomer LinkedIn group by user Marta Topornicka.

Really good article tackling complex matter of emotions in Customer Experience Management. The fact that emotions are not only grounded in ‘the event’ but can act to enhance a rational response, simply sums up what CX professionals are to achieve. Enhance the rational response, even cognition by designing the environmental context, where possible, but don’t try to implant ‘emotional experiences’.

Thanks (1)
Replying to LinkedIn Group Member:
Steven Walden
By Steven Walden
29th Oct 2017 08:20

I like the notion of focusing on context (from which emotions and attitude emerge). The danger of implanting emotional experiences is that you remove nuance. It now becomes something fixed in. Now I am not saying that's a bad thing but we need to maintain resilience.

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Steven Walden
By Steven Walden
29th Oct 2017 08:19

While the debate is by no means settled, an interesting addition is the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett. The change here is that emotions are constructed in the moment to enable meaning. I don't see too many changes in implications for CX professionals here: its still define situations of relevance, use near real time narrative, avoid gifting and gamed surveys.be aware of weak signals (emergent constructs reach a tipping point, nip in the bud early)

Thanks (1)
By PaulineAshenden
30th Oct 2017 09:10

This is a really comprehensive introduction - thank you Steven. One thing that CX teams and customer service agents struggle with is actually understanding emotion in digital communications - after all, you can’t see your customer or listen to their tone of voice if they are contacting you by email. This is an area where technology can assist - using AI to help unravel emotion, enabling a more relevant, empathetic conversation. There’s more on this, and some other research, in this blog post https://www.eptica.com/blog/capturing-emotion-better-apac-customer-exper...

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Replying to PaulineAshenden:
Steven Walden
By Steven Walden
20th Feb 2020 07:58

Assist is a good word. AI while no doubt 'of value' in linear bulk data feeds, is not a replicate for subjective understanding. An adjunct yes. highlighting and emphasising where to look yes but no more. I can see that if we take 1000 voice records and churn them through a process to identify hot spots of anger etc.
But we go too far by assuming an AI only focus. Not least because:
'its not the emotion that matters, but its meaning and context'
I suggest you review Cynefin .
My view:
Where we need to interpret human 'emotion', we need to ingest and understand subjectivity. Multiple human judgers are best for this.
After all. would you seriously ask a complex court case to be determined by AI? The capability to interpret data, bootstrap yourself into the context of the defendant and apply subjective and objective tests can only be done by a trained legal representative : and note I deliberately use the word complex.
Millions of years of evolution has trained humans to understand the antecedents of emotion.
To be honest, most of 'the AI can measure emotion statement' in my experience is an overhyped sales pitch. And a dangerous one at that.
This way will lead to catastrophic failure, simply because you strip out context.
And why empathetic conversation?
So I am a contact centre rep being tasked to ignore my own capability in favour of a machine algorithm? If so I would warn against this.
In short, AI helps in certain instances: define those instances. Once again we are indeed left with 'context is king'. Thank you for your comments,and I look forward to reading your counter blog.

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Steven Walden
By Steven Walden
08th Dec 2017 19:03

Pauline, that is fine up to a point. And I agree with you. So 4 dropped calls predict churn (we can infer unhappiness); breadcrumbs data infers confusion on a website (notice the event leads to the salient emotive-cognitive state). In digital though we always need to ingest the customer. This can be done with a mix of survey response (pop-ups that obtain narrative on the experience while controlling for bias -from which emotions can be derived) and big data. This we profiled in CX Vector - with Peter Dorrington

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