A rational explanation of my irrationality

Or, how I ended up paying for 15 cigars when I really only wanted 5.

We can be as rational as we want, but the heart still rules when it comes to our decisions.

Duke University Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely illustrates this with a great story.

He tells of using an online tool to decide which car was right for him. He answered a battery of questions only to discover that the car that matched him and his needs was a nondescript midsize sedan.

So did this man of science accept, without emotion, the rational outcome? Of course not. He’s human. He did what any of us would do. He went back and changed the answers until he got to that result that he felt like was the car that was right for him. For Ariely, it was a sporty roadster. Ariely tells this story with humility and humor to help us understand that we all are irrational decision makers.

The cigar story

If we stopped and thought about it, I bet each of us could come up with a story where our hearts ruled our heads. My most recent example involved cigars.

I'm no cigar aficionado. But I like to smoke one now and then. I have a favorite brand (Avo). But I have trouble bringing myself to spend $10 for a smoke. I also like Romeo Y Julieta's as well. And I can find them every once in awhile for under $4. I don't know why, but that seems to be my threshold for a cigar.

I was looking to buy a few recently. No more than 5 since I'm an infrequent smoker. If I could find them for $4 each, that would be a 20-dollar bill. That was at the top end of my range for the total I wanted to spend on cigars at any one time. I had it all figured out. Rationally evaluated.

Then I stumbled across an offer. 15 Romeo Y Julieta's for $50 ( and free shipping!) Sure this put the cigars at $3.33 each. But it was 3x as many cigars (way too many for how infrequently I smoked.) and it was 2-1/2x more than the maximum amount I wanted to spend at any one time on cigars. It was a no-go, rationally.

So, the head wins, right? Well, no. I bought them. I spent 2-1/2x more for way more cigars than I would need. But come on. These are Romeo Y Julieta's! For $3.33 apiece! I could smoke in style and feel like a genius! So, yeah. The heart wins.

What does it all mean?

Emotions rule our decision making. The fields of neuroscience and behavioral economics continue to build evidence.

This is why purpose-driven branding holds so much potential for organizations today. There is nothing more powerful than defining how your brand can make a difference in a life, a community, or even the world. Defining that produces one of the most powerful emotional appeals any brand can create.

It doesn’t mean that we abandon all rational appeals. They are part of the process as Ariely’s car story and my cigar example illustrate. We just have to remember that when it comes to the moment of truth, the heart rules.

Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at dsalva@willgrail.com.

ProcessDan Salva