Chapter 1 Excerpts

4. Emotion Commands Attention and Affects Memory

The focus of attention determines which experiences enter consciousness and which ones do not.

Attention is also required to make other mental events happen, such as thinking, feeling, remembering and making decisions. It is for this reason that attention has been called “psychic energy” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Like energy in the traditional sense, “without it, no work can be done and through work, that energy is dissipated” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 33).

Emotion commands attention and affects memory.

Attention makes work possible by selecting the pieces of information that are considered relevant from the vast amount of information that is available to our senses. We then compare those pieces of information to other information patterns stored in memory.

Information enters consciousness either because it is our intention to focus our attention on it or because our attention is commanded due to perceived emotional, biological, or social needs (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

In Seattle Children’s Hospital, a large whale sculpture helps direct children’s attention away from the environment of the hospital.
Sculpture in Seattle Children's
The intensity of emotional experience has been linked with the strength and clarity of memories before, during, and after emotional events (Reeves & Nass, 1998). This link is quite natural when you think about it, because without attention, information doesn’t get into our brains in the first place. In discussing the power of stories, Peter Guber puts it succinctly: “emotion bonded with information becomes memorable, resonant and actionable” (Power of Stories, 2011).

We don’t assign equal weight to negative and positive experiences. Negative experiences tend to demand much more attention than positive experiences.

Research has shown that negative experiences tend to demand much more attention and therefore hold much more psychological weight than positive experiences, which results in stronger memories of negative experiences, along with weaker memories of what came afterwards.

Emotional experiences also affect the memory of events that occur immediately before them. Individuals have impaired memory of events that occur right before negative experiences when compared to memories of events that occur right before positive experiences (Reeves & Nass, 1998).

Using negative emotion to increase the strength of a memory may seem useful, but, commanding attention in this way can have unintended consequences.

Although attention is demanded by negative experiences, it may be drawn to some unintended aspect of those experiences. For example, a negative visual image may demand more attention than the textual message that was actually meant to be the focus.

In software, unpleasant error messages can cause people to remember and focus on negative experiences over positive ones, potentially distorting how they think and feel about the application.

Multisensory Experiences

Emotional design is about directing the user’s attention to the right thing, at the right time.

By creating powerful, multisensory emotional experiences, brands can demand user attention and embed strong memories of their product or service in consumers’ minds. This produces changes in purchasing behavior and contributes to brand loyalty.

Many adults in North America have strong memories of being taken to McDonald’s as children.

McDonald’s uses a multisensory approach to make potential customers familiar with their products. Colorful commercial advertising, busy store locations, the special scent and taste of the food, the ubiquitous brand identity, and the toys all combine to create positive memories for children. Through association, the children have been conditioned by these early experiences to desire McDonald’s products.

These emotional responses help to form a bond through the creation of experiences that become stories and memories.

Whether you’re designing a product, a website, a software application, or even an environment, emotional design is often about directing the user’s attention to the right thing at the right time to create an emotional response.

Understanding the importance of attention (and how emotion commands it) will allow you to use design elements to shift the user’s focus in the right way at the right time.


Download the rest of Chapter 1

| back to top |

next – 5. Emotion Communicates Personality, Forms Relationships and Creates Meaning 

Chapter 1 Excerpts

3. Emotion Dominates Decision Making

When asked about their actions in a certain situation, many people will often claim that they carefully weighed the pros and cons before cautiously making a decision. However, this is often the opposite of how behavior actually takes shape. We tend to make decisions irrationally based on how we feel (or how we anticipate we’ll feel) and then justify those decisions rationally (Damasio, 1994).

Emotions dominate decision making because they motivate us to behave (i.e. avoid or approach).

The stronger or more intense (i.e., arousing or stimulating) our emotional experience is, the lower our ability to consciously evaluate the pros and cons of an offer or a situation. All of this makes us easy targets for marketers and advertisers.

Using Flattery to Influence Purchase Decisions

Compliments and flattery are persuasive devices that can be used to influence decision making.

Using Flattery to Influence Purchase DecisionsA few years ago, Trevor was shopping in a department store in Sweden. While browsing in the men’s section, he came across a pair of pants that he liked and decided to try them on. In the fitting room, he put on the pants, his back toward the mirror. Turning around to examine the fit, he was surprised to see the message in the image on the left.

Flattery has long been recognized as an effective persuasion method.

Even though Trevor was aware that the message was designed to persuade him to buy whatever he was trying on, it still produced an instant, unconscious emotional reaction. Part of that reaction can be attributed to sheer novelty, because he had never encountered something like this. However, the remainder of his reaction was due to a compliment offered, oddly enough, by an inanimate object.

Even a compliment from an inanimate object is more affective than no compliment at all.

The experience of being flattered is usually a pleasurable one, even when the compliments come from a few impersonal words written on a mirror. Tactics like this can often provide the touch of added influence that triggers a purchase decision. The more intense the emotional experience is, the lower our ability to consciously evaluate the situation.

Behaviorally, pleasure is linked with the tendency to approach, and pain is linked with the tendency to avoid.

When shoppers make purchase decisions, brain imaging has revealed that a choice is made between the pleasure of purchasing and owning the item and the pain of spending the money. Researchers found that they could accurately predict shoppers’ purchase decisions by noting which area of the brain was more active when they considered a purchase (Knutson, Rick, Wimmer, Prelec, & Loewenstein, 2006). We explore this in much more detail in the book.

Advertising and Emotional Appeal

It’s not just retailers who are using emotion to influence your buying habits and purchasing decisions.

The vast majority of pharmaceutical advertising (95%) relies on some sort of emotional appeal (Frosch, Krueger, Hornik, Cronholm, & Barg, 2007). When people get ill, you might think that they’d be looking for the most up-to-date information to help diagnose their illness and choose the appropriate medication. This would likely include descriptions of symptoms, possible risk factors and probable causes. However, a review of pharmaceutical advertising (Frosch, Krueger, Hornik, Cronholm, & Barg, 2007) showed that:

  • 82% made some factual claim
  • 86% made rational arguments for product use
  • 26% described condition causes and risk factors l 25 percent described prevalence
  • 95% made some sort of emotional appeal
95% of pharmaceutical advertisements used an emotional appeal.

Incidentally, not one mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to their products. The ads often framed medication use in terms of losing (58%) and regaining (85%) control over some aspect of life (Frosch et al., 2007).

Even the pills themselves have been “designed”, with studies linking the color of the pill to its perceived effectiveness. A survey of 12 studies found that stimulants worked better when colored red, orange, or yellow and that tranquilizers worked better when colored blue or green (de Craen, Roos, de Vries, & Kleijnen, 1996).

Marketers and advertisers in a number of industries clearly understand that emotions dominate decision making. It’s time that designers and UX professionals understand this as well.


Download the rest of Chapter 1

| back to top |

next: “4. Emotion Commands Attention and Affects Memory” >

Chapter 1 Excerpts

2. All Design is Emotional Design

Simple decisions rely on the emotional feedback provided by our feelings.

If your business involves competing in a market in which your customers have to choose between your product and similar products made by your competitors, consider this: individuals without the capacity for emotional response are unable to make even simple cognitive decisions such as what clothes to wear in the morning (Damasio, 1994). You’re required to make hundreds of seemingly inconsequential decisions each day, and simple emotional responses are likely the deciding factor in those decisions.

Emotional design is not some rare or sacred thing—it’s all around us.

Professionals in a large number of industries are now realizing the importance of considering their customers’ emotional responses. Security professionals have now realized that they are providing not only actual security but also the feeling or perception of security (Schneier, 2008).

Video games are designed with your emotions in mind.

Kinect Star Wars

Companies that make the latest video games have recognized that emotional engagement is the real reason that games become hits (Kohler, 2008). One of the results of this is that games have become more cinematic, with multiple characters, frequent scene changes, and epic story lines.

Other gaming companies are focusing on incorporating players’ emotional states into gameplay by monitoring their physiology. Journey to the Wild Divine: The Passage is a video game that uses biofeedback to monitor emotional arousal by measuring heart rate and skin conductance (, 2011). Movement through the game is dependent on the player’s ability to regulate his or her arousal levels. Some levels require players to relax themselves and others require the players to increase their energy.

All design is emotional design.

With continuing advances in technology and increasing understanding of the psychology and physiology of affective states, interest in emotion is growing because it makes for good business. Emotional design is not some rare or sacred thing — it’s all around us.

 “3. Emotion Dominates Decision-Making” >


Download the rest of Chapter 1

| back to top |

Chapter 1 Excerpts

1. Emotion is Experience

We receive information about the world from our senses.

Because we don’t have the attention required to process and interpret all the information we receive each day, a lot of the information we encounter is simply screened out (Davenport & Beck, 2001). Our brains then process and interpret the information that has actually made it into our heads. This information is represented and compared to the information we already know.

The information you take in informs your mental model or “map” of the world and reality.

Social Gamer Mental Map

Because no one can be exposed to everything, everyone’s map is incomplete. No single person’s map can possibly encompass “all” of reality. This inherent limitation naturally leads to some heated debates between people with different “maps” about the nature of existence, god and a number of other interesting questions that we won’t attempt to address here.

But let’s back up for a minute. What is it that keeps information from being ignored or screened out in the first place? What is it that selects the information that actually gets into our brains and becomes part of our mental models of reality? Attention selects relevant information by focusing on it and deletes information that’s considered irrelevant by simply ignoring it.

Emotion is the energy that drives and directs attention.

Emotions and other affective states like moods, sentiments and personality traits influence every aspect of our interactions with brands, products, and websites (Forlizzi & Battarbee, 2004). This includes our intentions, our plans, and any feedback on whether we achieve success. Our plans are our internal representations of sequences of events, actions, and consequences. Plans provide a link between the goals we envision in our minds and the actual realization of those goals in the physical world.

Affective states run the range from short-term emotions to long-term personality traits.

In this way, affective states act as continuously shifting influences that are always altering perception and triggering the mental processes that lead to behavior. In emotion research circles, this influence is called “emotional affect” (Russell, 1980).

Emotional affect can be envisioned as a lens that constantly colors our realities.

This lens is so pervasive and ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that it’s there, unless our emotions become intense enough to demand and divert our attention. The color and focus of the lens may change depending on the quality of the emotions we’re experiencing, but the lens is always there, subtly influencing how we see the world. We explore the effects of emotional affect in more detail in Chapter 2 of the book.

next: “2. All Design is Emotional Design” >


Download the rest of Chapter 1

| back to top |

Skip to content