How emotions play a role in people’s approach to long-term savings.


MoneyPlus Features Team

4th February 2014 at 10:01am

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion”. Dale Carnegie

Since the late nineteenth century, people have studied the role of biology, the brain and emotion.  Charles Darwin (1872/1999) argued that the existence of complex behaviours, including the expression of emotion, depends on natural selection (animal or human).  Emotionally expressive behaviours develop from responses to stimuli and they acquire additional survival value through their communicative functions.  What does this mean? An angry face that warns us of possible danger and tells us to stay away. This is an example of how an expression of emotion can become habitual if has a purpose.

Theories of emotion have continued to evolve, including those that consider the anatomy of our brain and connections with our emotional systems. In 1878, Paul Broca  carried out extensive work on the structure of the brain, part of which led him to rename the ‘visceral brain’ (relating to internal body cavities associated with emotion and non-thinking e.g. gut feel), instead referring to it as the ‘limbic system’.

Then in 1937 neuroanatomist James Papez believed he found a circuit in the brain that processed emotions.

In 1937 neuroanatomist James Papez believed he found a circuit in the brain that processed emotions.

But it didn’t stop there. Researchers continued to build upon this work, including MacLean (1970) who modified the “Papez Circuit theory” with the structure of Broca’s limbic system and came up with the Triune Brain. This proposed three evolutionary hierarchical layers that were sequentially added: first, the reptilian brain (brain stem and cerebellum); second the limbic brain; and third the neocortex which is the most recent addition and is the top layer of the brain.  According to MacLean, each area could work alone, but because of their high connectivity, one could dominate the other, (e.g. the limbic system underlying the emotion system can overrule the higher cognitive functions such as decision making and judgement).

Of course, there are many neuroscientists and psychologists who continue to advance theories of emotion, but the important point to consider here is the interaction between cognition and emotion.

The main point here is that brain regions identified with emotional processing, such as the amygdala, show extensive connections with those areas identified with cognition (e.g. prefrontal cortex).

And so, we cannot deny that there are strong interactions between cognition and emotion.

This means that our executive cognitive functions such as decision making, judgment, motivation, planning, working memory, attention and problem solving are inextricably influenced by our own emotional response.

Our executive cognitive functions such as decision making and planning are influenced by our own emotional response.

To take this one step further, consider the difference between positive emotion and negative emotion?  An enormous amount of research has investigated negative emotion because of our need for survival, our ‘fight or flight’ response.

Less research has covered the effect of positive emotion.  Nevertheless, where it has been investigated, findings are highly significant and compelling.  For instance, my own research revealed higher activation in several brain areas when exposed to positive emotional stimuli as opposed to negative or neutral stimuli.

Positive messages stimulate optimism, which in turn helps people feel in control, more confident, resilient and open minded (Fox 2012).  By default, open-minded people are open to new information and are more likely to take action with newly acquired knowledge if they feel it will improve their circumstances.

The results from the recent Saving In Mind experiment I undertook with Standard Life, showed that when it comes to thinking about money and the future, positive emotional messages with clear advice helped people to feel more in control and more likely to  save more in the future.  While this study is just the beginning and further research is needed, it is an important step towards helping the financial sector understand how it can improve communication with customers in the future.


Broca, P. P. (1878), Anatomie comparée des circonvolutions cérébrales: Le grand lobe limbique et le scissure limbique dans le serie des mammiferes. Révue d’Anthropologique, 2 (1), 385-498.

Darwin, C. (1872/1999) The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Fontana, London.

Fox, E.  (2012) Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.  William Heinemann, London

LeDoux, J. (1998) The Emotional Brain, The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Simon & Schuster, New York.

MacLean, P. (1970), The triune brain, emotion, and scientific bias. In The Neurosciences: Second Study Program, (Ed, Schmitt, F.) Rockefeller University Press, New York, pp. 336-349

Papez, J. W. (1937), A proposed mechanism of emotion. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 38 725-744.

Phelps, E. A., Ling, S. and Carrasco, M. (2006), Emotion facilitates perception and potentiates the perceptual benefits of attention. Psychological Science, 17 (4), 292-299.

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