The Business of the Brain on the Internet: How to Tactfully Use Emotions to Influence Others

Have you ever spotted a super cute top hanging in a storefront window only to walk by that Emojisame window day after day without setting foot in the store? Maybe the top is a little pricey or too heavy for the warm weather your area is experiencing. Then suddenly, one day, instead of walking by, you go into the store and make the purchase. Just like that.

What has changed? Nothing about the top, the store, or the price is different. Something about YOU has changed. Could it be your emotions? Almost certainly.

Initially, this might concern you. We (especially women) are often warned about the dangers of letting emotions control us and trained to suppress or ignore our emotions. So, it can be unsettling to learn that every decision from our career choices to what brand of ice cream we buy comes down to emotion. But what if instead of trying to control or change our emotions, we focus on evaluating them and learning from them?

In business, the success of a new venture or project launch could depend on your ability to understand and interpret people’s emotions (including your own). But you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to apply the science of emotion to your business practices.

How can we use emotions to influence others?

When I talk about influencing others through emotion, people understandably get a little squirmy (they start having visions of Thought Police). But there’s a big difference between preying on people’s emotions in order to manipulate them and wanting to better understand how emotions affect people in order to position your product to better serve your customers’ needs.

Here’s what the neuroscience of emotion tells us:

Even very logical decisions involve emotion at the point of decision. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who had damage to the part of their brain that registers emotions (the Limbic System). All of his study subjects had one thing in common: they had difficulty making even simple decisions, like what to eat for lunch.

Happy people make faster decisions than sad people. One study divided college students into two groups. One group watched a happy film, while the other group watched a sad film. Both groups were then asked the same set of 12-item dilemma questions to test their decision-making process. Those who watched the happy film decided faster and reported being less confused about the dilemmas.

Seemingly irrelevant factors can have significant impacts. Various studies show that being in a heightened emotional state, either positive or negative, makes it more difficult for us to judge whether advice is good or bad. When we are feeling either overly confident or overly anxious, we tend to discount information provided by others.

So how can you use the science of emotion to improve your website?

Now that you have seen the science behind emotion, you are ready to look at your website with a new appreciation for what your users might be experiencing:

Consider what emotional responses your website elicits. This might hurt a little (you might want to have a glass of wine in hand while you do this). As objectively as you can, evaluate your website for elements that might elicit negative feelings from your users. Or sit with someone you trust and talk with them as they review your website (I do free website assessments, just FYI). Websites with calming and inspirational images, like the neighbor who always seems to have freshly baked cookies, invite the user make herself comfortable and stay awhile. But websites with anxiety-inducing elements are more like the neighbor who is always yelling at the kids to stay off his lawn. No one wants to hang around there too long.

Website elements to avoid: flashing images, pictures of people who look like they are anxious or in pain, and cluttered pages. This website manages to hit on all three. Hint: it’s a good idea to stay away from anything that reminds you of a virtual used car salesman.

Don’t bombard people with data. Piling on the data and using reason to build an irrefutable case for your product or service might seem like a good idea. But it isn’t the best way to persuade people. Remember that even very logical and rational decisions involve emotion at crucial points. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s no place for data on websites. Especially if your data invokes an overwhelmingly positive emotional response (our worker training program has reduced on-the-job injuries by 80%), those results are definitely worth sharing. For a good example of data use, look at the Her Corner website. You’ll find data on secondary pages, but the front pages are full of images of people smiling and bright cheery colors that draw users in. While the images are the hook, the data seals the deal.

Think in terms of creating a vision for others. When we are trying to negotiate a sale, it’s tempting to think in terms of knocking down objections. In other words, we envision ourselves winning an argument, rather than welcoming the other person into the fold. But it’s not good policy to argue with your clients. Think instead, in terms of painting a picture for your customer. Take the video on this website on this website as an example. It does a good job of telling the company’s story while conveying a sense of creativity and inspiration. Also, there’s no sound unless the user decides to click play. This is smart since videos with sound that start playing automatically, risk creating anxiety as a first impression. Taking this story-telling approach will help users come through the process of discovery and around to the decision to purchase on their own. Remember that you can’t do the thinking for your client. Her decision is ultimately based on self-interest. That’s emotion. That’s desire.

It is a mistake to think that we can totally control our own emotions using reason and even more of a mistake to think that we can control the emotions of those around us. But by evaluating emotional responses in ourselves and others we can use reason to harness the power of emotion.

Instead of thinking of emotions as the enemy to progress, let’s think of ways to make them one of our best partners in business.

And don’t forget you can reach out in the comments below or on social media: Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

Photo credit: By Sk5893 (Screenshot of phone) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons