Whose rationality? Muddling through the messy emotional reality of financial decision-making

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The public’s financial security is vital to economic stability, with policy and practice efforts focused on developing financial literacy to reduce financial vulnerability. However, this approach fails to fully consider the emotional factors that influence the financial decision-making process. This study examines how emotions shape these decisions, drawing on the concept of ‘muddling through’ to understand the complex process to be navigated. Data are drawn from 78 in-depth interviews with consumers who were financially ‘struggling and squeezed’. ‘Integral’ and ‘incidental’ emotions were influential both in assisting the decision-making process and in introducing biases that could lead to harm. Consumers were able to rationalize their decisions, even though they might not be economically optimal in the longer term. Muddling through theory is extended by explaining the role of emotions within it. New insights into the interaction between emotions that are ‘integral’ or ‘incidental’ to decision-making lead to policy and practice recommendations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)(In-press)
JournalJournal of Business Research
Early online date2 Nov 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


Funding Information:
Funding was received from the Money Advice Service’s What Works Fund for a project entitled ‘Managing My Money for the Just About Managing’, a research project conducted by the True Potential Centre for the Public Understanding of Finance at the Open University and the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University.


  • Emotions
  • Financial literacy
  • Financial vulnerability
  • Muddling through
  • Rational decision-making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Marketing

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