Thinking Through Feeling: How Emotions Help Us Understand New Things
Have you ever had a brilliant idea for something new and tried to explain it to someone else? Chances are that it was difficult to get them to share the same enthusiasm for the idea, or even understand it in its entirety. We are inherently skeptical when it comes to novelty, not only for new ideas, but for organizations, products, and initiatives with which we aren’t familiar.
While we feel the thrill of discovery when we connect with something new, there are numerous cognitive and emotional barriers that make such discoveries rare. These hurdles are especially relevant to consider as we share messages in a digital space that is increasingly crowded with information.
The most central barrier to interacting with something new is awareness; we typically don’t engage with things that we don’t know about. But even when we’re familiar with certain ideas, they rarely elicit strong emotional responses that motivate us to action. A non-profit asks for donations, a new product comes onto the market, a candidate runs for office, but we may not immediately understand their relevance in our lives. In the limited time that we are receptive to new messages, it’s difficult for us to feel anything other than annoyance or ambivalence when confronted with new information.
The relationship between cognition and emotion, an ongoing debate in psychology and neuroscience, is a key consideration for people and organizations that wish to deliver their messages at scale. Historically, cognition and emotion were viewed as entirely separate concepts. Cognition refers to processes like reasoning, planning, and problem-solving, while emotion was considered a series of vague and subjective processes that contaminated rational thought. Heated scholarly debates have also sought to establish which comes first: cognitive or emotional response. For example, when we see a snake in the wilderness, do we first have a cognitive response that categorizes the snake as dangerous and then triggers an emotional response? Or vice versa?
While this debate remains unresolved, a growing body of neurological research points to the interdependence of the two phenomena. Emotions are essential for how we create meaning and develop understanding. Cognition helps to both drive and provide context to our emotions. While they engage different parts of our brain, the two are intrinsically linked.
When we have something important to share, our instincts are to start with facts that we deem most essential. Facing limitations in time and attention, we default to rudimentary calls to action. “Eco-friendly!” “50% off!” “Vote for me!” “Donate now!” But to go beyond awareness, we need more thoughtful and sophisticated tools for eliciting meaning and understanding. Messages should make people feel something, and simultaneously provide the right information and context to help them understand the messages.
Analogies for example, can help simply complex ideas and move them into understandable terrain. By tapping into knowable, collective experiences, analogies keep us in our comfort zones as we engage with a new idea. Another powerful strategy is to tell stories centered around people, which uses the context of real-life experiences to help audiences attribute meaning to a message. Through honest and relatable stories, individuals and organizations can foster meaningful connections with those they are trying to reach. Even within a few seconds, a message may register as relatable and authentic, or disingenuous and irrelevant, based on how the message is delivered.
Sharing messages at scale presents major challenges, and lack of awareness is not the only hurdle. Messages need to make people feel something, so that they can better understand the issue and subsequently take action. By highlighting relatable experiences and providing narrative depth to events, stories are powerful mechanisms to connect people to new information. While we are hard-wired to have a certain amount of resistance to novel things, by triggering the right blend of emotional and cognitive responses, these barriers can give way to the excitement of discovery.