Trust The Numbers -- Or Your Gut?

Buzzwords like “big data” and “data-driven marketing” could make you believe that marketing leadership has been taken over by robots -- logical and dispassionate.

To be sure, data and science are foundational and should form a marketing framework. But what about feelings? According to a growing body of neurological science, emotional impulses should not be ignored in business situations.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, “Your Brain at Work,” two neuroscience experts turned business professors summarized key advances in our understanding of the brain’s emotions, or the “affect network.”

The affect network activates when people experience emotions, and it accelerates decision-making and information processing that may otherwise include too many variables. People with damage to their affect network are forced to undergo a long and involved cost-benefit analysis that can paralyze decision-making.



While feelings and emotions are complex and have limitations -- and should not circumvent reason -- the authors suggest that emotions, particularly hunches, can be useful in leadership situations involving risk. For example, negative gut feelings may prevent people from making overly optimistic decisions. In a world of numbers and excessive data, leaders have so much paralyzing information that hunches can be indispensable.

However, not all hunches are created equal. According to the, people are skilled at following positive hunches, like pursuing a promising market opportunity, even in the absence of complete data and hard evidence. Conversely, people tend to undervalue negative hunches, like doubt and anxiety, and ignore or eliminate them because they create a perception of weakness in themselves or their organizations. But negative hunches are rooted in past experience, and are probably worth listening to as important cues.

These are among the reasons marketing leaders must embrace emotions and feelings in tandem with hard data and science. In other words, listen to your hunches and let them guide you, but verify and execute with evidence and data.

The role of emotions is critical, even if we don’t fully understand them. That is why we need more research and science on this topic. Importantly, don’t discount or eliminate them amid the intensifying environment of data-driven marketing. The brain is a beautiful, sophisticated organ that is largely emotional -- and it is even more powerful and effective when empowered with data.

4 comments about "Trust The Numbers -- Or Your Gut?".
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  1. Ron Stitt from Fox Television Stations, August 27, 2013 at 1:19 p.m.

    Good point Max. Another reminder that "data is not information".

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 27, 2013 at 7:45 p.m.

    Fear rules and has always ruled the world. Beliefs stem from fear, rational or imagined. Sometimes fear paralyzes and destroys us; sometimes it saves us.

  3. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, August 28, 2013 at 6:34 a.m.
  4. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, August 28, 2013 at 6:50 a.m.

    Very interesting article. The main problem with using the "affect network" to inform decisions is that hunches confuse correlation with causation, which is very dangerous in situations were you are not really in control. Think of the gambling addict who knows he will win big next time, because that's what his gut tells him. Rather surprising that I couldn't find any mention of this issue in the article.

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