Editor’s note: Jerry W. Thomas is president and chief executive of Decision Analyst, a Dallas-based research and consulting firm. 

Perhaps nowhere in the marketing domain is our thinking more flawed and fuzzy than the ongoing debate between the rational and the emotional. Variations of the phrase “rational vs. emotional” are found in textbooks, articles and everyday conversations in marketing and marketing research spheres.

And, as with so many other topics, we tend to copy what others are saying and writing without stopping to think about what it all means. All too often in books, magazines, blogs and conference pronouncements the assumption is made that emotions are non-conscious and all rational thinking is conscious. What’s the harm in that?

Assuming that all emotions are non-conscious can lead us into quicksand. If we assume that consumers can never consciously explain their emotions (as some behavioral economists would have us believe), we are likely to ignore or not give adequate weight to what consumers are trying to tell us.

It is true that some of our emotions are non-conscious and that those non-conscious emotions do affect our thinking and behavior. But, if we assume that all emotions are non-conscious, it might lead us to put our faith in witch doctors or shamans (or neuroscientists, gurus, soothsayers, etc.) to reveal the invisible inner-depths of human emotion.

Before I discuss the role of emotion in greater detail, let’s explore rational thinking. Rational is defined as logical, based on reasoning. Most people would agree that rational thinking is a conscious process. We have a problem to solve, we think about it consciously and come up with a solution. But is rational thinking an exclusively conscious activity? Suppose that you are trying to solve a difficult mathematical, engineering or statistical problem. You may be stumped for quite a while and decide to work on othe...