The Body Remembers Like an Elephant

The body can remember which groceries to put in the shopping cart and which not to – thus, this is not something we have to think a lot about!

Often we can, as quick as lightning, decide what we like and what we do not like – and likewise often without even being able to explain why it is exactly like that. This “irrational” consumer behavior has long been an interesting subject for both researchers and practicians and in recent years we have also obtained a deeper insight into what role emotions play in our consumption. First of all, this knew knowledge comes from neuroscience and emotion psychology, which have examined how the body and biology generate consumption preferences and purchasing decisions without using energy on consulting the conscious part of the brain.


What do feelings mean?

As yet, the role of feelings has, in connection to consumption, primarily been examined from a symbol-economical perspective where the purpose has been to show how the consumers utilize products and brands in their identity creation. The symbol-economical research has led to a extended understanding of how symbolic brand-universes can create meaning and opinion, which some times are truly decisive for purchasing decision and product evaluation.

The gradually well-established insight in the more cognitive and social aspects concerning consumption have in recent years been supplemented with new knowledge from neuro- and emotion science, which indicates that there is more between brand and consumption than symbol economy. You see, first of all, it is frightening few (purchasing) decisions that are made on this high consciousness-level, and secondly, it is not like everything that feels meaningful for the individual is social constructions – at least just as much is pure biology. The body has, in other words, much more to say than we believe at first in our pleasant, civilized, hyper-complex society.


The body registers what hurts

According to the new neuro- and emotion research our organism registers all the time – on a conscious as well as unconscious level – any change in the surroundings or inside the body itself and reacts on it on the basis of a principal about securing survival and ensuring the highest possible state of health. These bodily reactions on stimuli are called emotions and emotions or feelings are found in both very refined versions on a high and top level and in very plebeian shapes on a completely unconscious, near ameba-ish level. However, regardless of where the emotions are placed in the social ladder, they have in common that they all originate from the body’s reactions on stimulus. When the body is exposed to some kind of stimulus, it stocks a “snapshot” of both the event, which activated the emotional reaction and by the emotion it self. These snapshots are archived in the memory and we can, as quick as lightning, recall them on our inner screen – this is for example what happens when we “feel” that there is something we do not like or do like but cannot explain why. Since it is both the positive and negative emotions, which are archived as a sort of gut feelings, the body generates, so to speak, a stable foundation for preference-establishment and firm consumption habits. Because it will – loyal to ideal about survival and the well-being – seek to repeat the good experiences and avoid the unpleasant experiences. And even though we might have to say that we have moved far away from the good old-fashioned “economic man”, it is still a fact that the organism actually is very economically aware and operates on the basis of the principle, “if it aint broken – don’t fix it”. Therefore, it would rather make decisions pr. gut feeling without using too much energy on thinking further about them. Thus, feelings are, in most cases, more important for our decisions than reflections.


When consumer and products meet...

Neuroscience and emotions-psychology try to explain some of the aspects where the symbol-economical research falls short – among others about the individual differences in the consumers’ motives and preferences, which do not have anything to do with social and cultural contexts at all.

The individual consumer-experience can be described as an interchange between the product and the consumer where both parts “bring something”. Via its actual physical appearance, the product induces some feelings in the consumer, who on its part has stored some “snapshots” of certain preferences in the light of earlier experiences with (similar) products. This relation we call “emotional affordance”.

We have borrowed the term “affordance” from the psychologist James J. Gibson. In his version, it has nothing to do with feelings but is mere functionalist, given that Gibson used the term to describe an animal’s ability to react on the possibilities of action that the surroundings offer. For instance, if a big and small dog stand in front of a fence with a certain size, then the big dog will try to jump across the fence because it senses its own size compared to the fence and decodes the fence as “something skip-able” – while the small dog would not do it at all because it decodes is as something “unskip-able”. Gibson’s point is that the fence represents itself with some determined spatial dimensions, which are relative compared to the dog’s “bodily recollection” of such appearances. If the relation “feels” positive, the dog will get mixed up with the fence and tries to jump over it – if not, the fence is simply not something for it and it will not concern itself with it all. This understanding of the relation between individual and object we pass on in our notion of “emotional affordance” as we say that there are some specific features of any product, which make some consumers want to interact with it because it affects them with a stimuli, which is identified as a possibility of a pleasant relation. That is, if the product in some way or another induces a “snapshot”, which releases a gut feeling of a good experience, then the consumer will have a predisposition to “get mixed up” with it. Thus, an “emotional affordance” has to be understood as being the specific qualities of a product, which make the consumers in question to further concern themselves with it. At first, it is at a totally basic, biological level that the consumer feels attracted to the product. This bodily reaction gradually becomes more deliberated by the product being evaluated compared to the customs and preferences, which the body already has established. In the end, if the comparison turns out to be positive, the consumer acknowledges the indulgence on a deliberate, reflexive level and feels like buying. Nonetheless, the point is that the cognitive decision is a result of the preceding unconscious and completely automated sort of bodily relation between the consumer and the product.


The bright consumer

From a biological perspective, experiences are physiological, emotional responses to stimuli. However, from a cognitive perspective, experiences are also individual and social meanings, which are dominant for the individual’s life-projects and identity creations. What we call an experience is thus clamped between an unconscious, biological level and a reflexive, social level, and an assessment of the different layers in the human experience, which can give a more varied picture of what the concept “emotional affordance” covers (See figure 1).

The first level of the experience is the neurophysiological level where the consumer is “triggered” by the product and becomes motivated to get mixed up in it in order to get his or her brightness converted into something that grants pleasure. On the next level, a spontaneous and to a great extent still unconscious evaluation about whether or not the registered change in the organism, which the product has released, is pleasant or unpleasant occurs. Should it be enjoyed – or should I on the contrary hurry off as fast as possible? This is an absolute automated, emotional decision where the physiological changes in the body are being evaluated and entail an appropriate behavioral reaction. The third level involves the habitual established timetables, which make us able to relate to the world and other people in an automatic and predictable manner. Our experiences have fitted us with a relatively stable nest of routines and customs that act as selection devices or cognitive preference systems, which we are using automatically and without thinking too much about it. Therefore, we can make decisions fast. On the highest reflexive level, stimulation, emotional response, and disappointed or satisfied expectations become conscious new understandings of our own subsistence and/or of the surroundings. This is where the experience becomes my experience as it is transformed from just being a stimulus, which the organism reacts to, to becoming a part of a personal story. It is also at this level, the experience becomes social and can be shared and discussed with others, for example this is where it can boost the social kudos – or the opposite.


But it is more important that everything begins with a bodily stimulation, which through an emotional response are transmuted into significance that gives meaning for the individual and can be communicated to others.


Figure 1:


The Reflexive Level


Customs and Preferences

The Habitual Level


Behavioral Change

The Evaluating Level


Changes in the Organism

The Neurophysiological Level