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How to Use Behavioral Science to Create a Positive Emotional Experience

minute read

Whether you’re designing a single touchpoint or trying to shape an entire customer journey, you want to create an experience that persuades, influences, and inspires action.

But there’s something else, an “X factor,” that the best customer experiences share. What is it? Emotion.

The Importance of Emotional Experiences

Why should we care about how customers feel during and after our experience? Because emotions help create memories of a brand and even affect what purchase decisions customers make.

A study by Deloitte Digital showed that people rate brands mostly based on personal feelings and experiences. According to Deloitte, a positive emotional experience drives business results. For example:

  • 92% of customers are more likely to stay loyal to a brand with which they have a positive emotional connection.
  • 88% of customers are more likely to spend more with brands about which they feel positively.
  • 91% of customers are willing to advocate for businesses which they associate positive emotions.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, customer experience research firm Forrester found that the way customers feel about a brand has 1.5x more impact on business outcomes than how they think about it, as shown in the image below.

Source: Forrester Consulting / FocusVision

Source: Forrester Consulting / FocusVision

Clearly, creating positive emotions through customer experience is important. But how do we do that? One way is by understanding behavioral science and psychology principles that can help drive positive emotions.

6 Behavioral Science and Psychology Principles That Can Help Create Emotional Experiences

There are many behavioral science and psychology principles we can use to drive customer emotions. Below, I’ve included six of those I feel are critical to creating an emotional experience for customers:

  1. The Halo Effect
  2. The Mere Exposure Effect
  3. Likability
  4. The Self-Reference Effect
  5. The Endowment Effect
  6. The Peak-End Rule

1. What Is The Halo Effect?

Coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike, the Halo Effect describes people’s tendency to let one positive trait guide their total opinion of a person, product, or experience. Being aware of how the Halo Effect influences users can help you craft a better experience.

For example, when people have a positive emotional reaction to a site’s design, they rate the entire experience more highly. Researchers at The Decision Lab ran a study in which they showed users two login pages. Each page had identical functionality, but different levels of design. The researchers then asked users to rate the pages’ attractiveness.

Source: The Decision Lab

Source: The Decision Lab

When users liked the design of a page, they were more likely to rate it as intuitive, reliable, and secure. The difference between the perceived performance of each page was staggering. The attractive page was rated:

  • 104% more reliable
  • 37% more intuitive
  • 152% more resilient to hacking

2. What Is The Mere Exposure Effect?

Coined in the 1960s by social psychologist Robert Zajonc, the Mere Exposure effect states when people are familiar with something, they begin to create an emotional bond with it, and therefore prefer it. And given a choice of two options, they’ll prefer the one they’ve been exposed to the most (even if it’s lower quality).

For example, a 2012 study of the Eurovision song contest discovered an interesting connection. The number of times an audience saw a contestant correlated with how many votes the contestant received.

It didn’t matter if the contestant wasn’t a great performer. As long as they were seen more by the audience, the contestant received more overall votes. Just like the Eurovision voters, customers prefer something the more they see it, because they begin to form emotional bonds with the product.

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3. What is Likability?

The Likability Principle, one of Professor Robert Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Influence, states that “people prefer to say yes to those that they like.”

How can you harness the power of likability to drive positive emotions? One way is to make your experience stand out by injecting some personality. For example, Alamo Drafthouse, an American cinema chain, isn’t afraid to stand apart by using classic cinema characters in unique ways.

Source: Alamo Drafthouse

Source: Alamo Drafthouse

Another example of evoking positive emotions through likability is the packaging design below for a German walnut brand. It’s eye-catching, unique, and sure to create some customer delight.

Source: Google Images

Source: Google Images

4. What is the Self-Reference Effect?

The Self-Reference Effect states that people remember information more easily when it’s relevant to them. Our brains encode personalized information differently, resulting in enhanced recall, learning, and persuasion.

Several studies have found that customers are more likely to respond to ads when the models look like them. Referencing a customer’s internal picture of themselves is even more powerful, because it begins to evoke emotions.

For example, if a woman thinks of herself as “strong”, she’s more likely to prefer experiences that reference “strength”. If she’s shopping for running gear and notices the female mannequins have obvious muscle tone, she’ll see the brand as more relevant to her, as UFC fighter Tecia Torres did in the tweet below.

Tecia Torres Self-reference Effect

5. What is the Endowment Effect?

The Endowment Effect states that people place a higher value on items that they own or intend to buy. Ownership, or intent to own, create emotional bonds that people don’t want to break.

When a customer puts something in their cart they begin to dream about their future with that item. Fantasizing about how it will look in their living room, and how much guests will admire it. Once customers create “pre-memories” they become emotionally bonded to the item.

6. What Is The Peak-End Rule?

The Peak-end Rule says that people judge an experience based on how they felt at its peak and its end, not the average of every moment of the experience. And that’s true whether the experience was good or bad.

Peak end rule

Source: Rob Voase

For brands, this means customers will remember their whole experience based on only two moments — the best (or worst) part of their experience, and the end. That’s great news, because it means you can craft the intended emotion of an experience by focusing on just two parts.

The Bottom Line

To design an Emotional Experience, begin by asking yourself:

  1. The Halo Effect: How do users perceive the aesthetics of our brand or digital experience? Is it driving a positive emotional halo, or a negative one?
  2. The Mere Exposure Effect: Is our brand being seen or experienced by our customers enough to drive positive emotions? The overall experience may need to be tweaked to intersect customers more often in their everyday activities.
  3. Likability: Does our experience and/or brand have a personality? And are we conveying that personality through our products and customer experience?
  4. The Self-Reference Effect: How deeply do we know our customers? Not just their demographic information, but their thoughts, fear, goals, and aspirations? Does our experience reflect how they see themselves?
  5. The Endowment Effect: How can we get customers to imagine their futures with our products? Is there a way they can make a small, low-stakes emotional commitment to our brand or product?
  6. The Peak-End Rule: Where do our customers feel the best, and the worst, in our experience? If you’re struggling to figure this out, I recommend creating a customer journey map to understand users’ emotional experience.

About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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