Emotional Dynamics

A Framework for Why People Do What They Do

In my business – consumer research – understanding why people do what they do – particularly why people buy what they buy – is really what it’s all about. And, of course, once we discover why, recommending how to activate that dynamic so that desired behavior occurs is the ultimate goal.

Why do people do what they do?
This is the question we’re all trying to answer.

The question seems simple enough. After all, we all understand what ‘why’ means, right?

Well, maybe not.

When people have to explain what they mean by ‘why,’ they’re often at a loss. They may say, “‘Why’ is the thing that causes something to happen.” Or, perhaps a little more sophisticated, they may say, “‘Why’ is what motivates people to act.”

However, ‘the thing that causes’ and ‘what motivates’ seem insufficient to pinpoint why. Something more seems needed.

We offer an operational framework that explains why people do what they do.

We call our framework Emotional Dynamics, and it directs most of the studies we conduct. In other words, because most of our studies are trying to figure out why (at least some component of it), we work to tease out the components of why based on this framework.

Before presenting and describing the framework, we’re compelled to introduce the main dynamic – AFFECT (a’ – fekt, accent on first syllable, a noun, not the verb meaning to influence something). (Emotions and feelings are probably the most commonly referred to type of Affect, although emotions and feelings are only a subset.)

What we’re saying is that some form of Affect, whether it’s physical sensations, emotions, feelings, moods, or any other variety, primarily, if not exclusively, drives all behavior. As you may know, I like to say, “We do what we do … we buy what we buy … because our emotions and feelings tell us to.” (I probably should revise that to say ‘Affect’ instead of ’emotions and feelings,’ but that technicality is for another discussion. For now, you get the point.)

Now for the framework.

Emotional Dynamics

Framework for why people do what they do


Essentially the framework says:

  • Things happen to us. We have experiences.
  • In response, we feel and (most times) think things, which become experiences themselves.
  • Experiences, Affect, and Cognitions keep “interacting” until decisions and behavior result.
  • Affect is what ultimately drives behavior, triggered by experiences and cognitions.
  • And all of this can happen both implicitly (nonconsciously) and explicitly (consciously).

Based on this framework, determining why people do what they do involves identifying all three components of the process. For example, using the diagram below, let’s say someone (a woman) is considering buying vitamins at Walgreen’s. In fact, let’s say she ultimately decides to buy vitamins at Walgreen’s. Why did she do that?


This is a very simplified version of what could be a much larger, more complex map, but the Experience (in red) of seeing or imagining a Walgreen’s pharmacist may be a key trigger, especially if this person has Cognitions (a.k.a., beliefs, in light blue) that trigger Affect (in this case, emotions/feelings in yellow) that drive the purchase. Notice that all three elements of the framework are at play (an Experience, Cognitions, and Affect), but the Affective elements (emotions/feelings) are really telling this person to buy vitamins at Walgreen’s.

Using this example, there could be many statements that answer the question of why this person bought vitamins at Walgreen’s. We suggest that any complete statement needs to address all Emotional Dynamics components involved.

For instance, one could say this person bought vitamins at Walgreen’s because, after seeing a Walgreen’s pharmacist and believing she would feel healthier because Walgreen’s specializes in health, she imagined that she would feel relieved. The total why statement would address all components, but emphasize relief as the true driver. Furthermore, framing why in this way allows for operations and marketing (including advertising) to focus on the experiential triggers and messages necessary to activate the key affective element … relief.

We hope you find this framework complete and useful. To further discuss it, or to design a study that ultimately identifies these components for why consumers buy your products or services, please contact Paul Conner of Emotive Analytics at [email protected]

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