School of Business and Economics

A Valentine’s Day missive - head, heart or gut-reaction?

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day comes around every year, tempting, taunting us and playing with our minds.  If, like most people, you believe that your decisions are a result of a rational analysis of available alternatives, think again! You may not be as immune to these marketing tactics as you think, but not necessarily in the ways you might expect. Science finds that emotions greatly influence or even determine our decisions.

With Valentine’s day coming up, we decided to ask a few of our specialists how our emotions affect our consumer behaviour.

Emotional versus rational decision-making

Attaching emotion to consumerism is a powerful tool. Aline Dantas, a PhD candidate in Human Decision and Policy Design at UM, and a specialist in applied neurosciences, suggests that the marketing influences we are exposed to in the run-up to events like Valentine’s day, may affect our decision-making more than we think.  'Although we believe that most of our consumption choices are rational, we know now in decision neuroscience that this is actually not true. Most of our decisions are a result of the combination between rational decisions, for example comparing prices and choosing carefully what to buy, and emotional factors, such as impulsive buying for example, but also attraction, 'gut feelings' and others.'

It makes sense then that events such as Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Mother’s Day are opportunities for businesses to zone in on the emotional consumption element as Aline notes, 'we tend to make more impulsive decisions and buy what we rationally wouldn’t buy.' It also affects how much we spend, and what we buy. 'The time pressure imposed by a special date is also a strong factor to reduce the rationality of our choices. This means that under time pressure we are more likely to pay more, buy more and certainly make poorer choices.'

The flip side

From a consumer behaviour perspective, it is clear that marketing has an effect, but it may not always be to the economic advantage of the business. There is a tipping point whenever society adopts such a commercial approach to these kinds of events, and we see there is often a reaction against it. Bram Foubert, Associate Professor of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at SBE, notes that, 'the bigger Valentine's Day becomes, the more you run the risk of losing an important part of the market. This phenomenon of reactance marketing is a big thing.' When people feel constrained in their behavioural freedom, for example, pushy sales tactics, the sense of needing to buy a gift/card / go out for a meal on Valentine’s day, then you see there's always some reaction against it, so some people purposefully don’t participate in it, because they feel forced to.

The power of surprise

Gift giving and our perception of gifts, is another area where the outcomes may not always match the intention. Caroline Goukens, a Professor at the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at SBE, agrees that Valentine’s Day gifts don’t always have the desired effect. Dr Gouker’s research on individual decision making and consumption behaviour, suggests that 'people prefer spontaneous and unexpected gifts more than obligatory gifts. As such, Valentine day’s gifts are appreciated less than gifts given on unexpected moments.' However, Caroline noted that on the other-hand, 'especially for newly started relationships, giving gifts on Valentine’s Day can be seen as a way to consolidate relationships.'

Trust your gut instinct

How we view our decision-making processes is changing. The interplay between rational and emotional decision-making is a relatively new area of academic research. It is a new and exciting approach and an area which is growing fast. Dantas’ research within the Maastricht University CEntre for Neuroeconomics (MU CEN) investigates the effects of the gut-brain axis on decision-making 'specifically we are looking into risk-taking and intertemporal choices.'

Dantas tells us that 'we are finding pretty interesting effects of probiotics in our decision-making, which was something unimaginable less than 10 years ago. It means that not only our brains command our decisions, but also our bodies, and more specifically our guts (!) There’s a lot of research on the gut-brain axis and we are the first group so far to bring this approach to decision-neuroscience, which is really exciting.'

So, when you’re confronted with hearts and flowers, promotional valentine’s messages and deciding whether or not to buy that special gift for a loved one, stop and think, what is my gut telling me, am I feeling constrained in my decision-making, is now the best time to buy this gift? You never know, the outcome might surprise you!

A student's perspective


We wanted to hear what our students have to say about Valentine’s Day. Niels, a student of the MSc. Strategic Marketing & Change Management program, shared his thoughts with us. 

Why do you think Valentine’s Day is becoming more popular in the Netherlands / Europe?

'I actually never noticed it becoming more popular. I remember I was also buying presents for my girlfriend when I was 16. Easy access to American TV and films could be attributing factors. When I was younger, I remeber you would have to rent a dvd or would have to actively look for things on the internet; now, almost everyone has a Netflix account in their homes. So, more American content is being streamed than before and American holidays are more out there.'

Do you think we are influenced by marketing to behave in a certain way?

'On the one hand, I think digitalisation offers more opportunities or urges businesses to attract more customers through marketing and hence they start putting out more marketing around these “holidays”. On the other hand, it could also be a reaction to people’s needs. More people are influenced by American content and therefore they expect to do something for Valentine’s day. If companies are seeing spikes in demand around a certain date (based on data), then they act on this the next year by channelling even more consumers in the same direction, i.e. more marketing.  I guess both sides rely on the fact that increasingly more data is being used to measure and shape the process.

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