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OPINION10 October 2011

Counting the beats: a critique

Behavioural economics Opinion

Does heart always lead head? Steven Walden challenges some assumptions and myths about measuring emotion.

Reading Research’s recent series of articles on measuring emotion, I noticed a number of assumptions that seemed to underlie people’s understanding of the topic. Here are four beliefs that researchers need to reconsider as they seek to get their heads round emotion and decision-making.

Emotions always come first

“There are no decisions that are taken that are purely rational and there are no decisions that are purely emotional.” That’s according to Phil Barden, quoted in the recent Research article Counting the beats. But if there is interplay between the two in decision-making, then which comes first: emotion or rationality?

There seems to be an assumption that emotion predetermines rationality, especially when we talk about post-rationalisation of decisions, or when researchers try to artificially separate the two.

This is a mindfield of debate, but in appraisal theories of emotion, put forward by Richard Lazarus and others, emotions are extracted from our evaluations of events. It is these appraisals, both conscious and unconscious, that prime emotional and rational response. While accepting totally that emotions are part and parcel of rationality – as Antonio Damasio demonstrates in his experiments with brain-damaged patients – it seems incorrect to assume that the emotion came first, rather than being preceded by an appraisal.

The functional is not emotional

My second criticism is directed at the belief that the functionality (of a product, for example) is somehow always unemotional. If the basis of response is the goal state (how things are appraised) then functionality can absolutely drive emotional response. It sounds cool to talk about hedonic value as the source of emotion but the fact is that a great product or a low price also have the potential to hit our hot buttons. Likewise, a perceived hedonic effect can be a complete waste of time even if there is an emotional response – unless it adds some value or has some meaning to the customer.

If we take this argument further we can see that emotions can be latent. An example of this is the network functionality of a mobile operator. Just because service levels are similar between operators doesn’t mean it is not important; it just means it has not been effectively and relatively differentiated. If one company’s service levels drop, customers feel it and don’t buy from them.

Researchers and academics confuse lack of variance today with lack of importance. I absolutely concur with Orlando Wood on using emotion for creative engagement. But to do this means understanding not just what the current responses is, but what the response could be.

It’s emotional strength that matters

Throughout the articles on emotion there seemed to be an assumption that the greater the emotional expression, the greater the importance. But this is not true if we take an appraisal-based approach. I may for instance feel slightly pleased by the packaging of a chocolate bar and absolutely delighted by the music being played in the shop. Which is more important? Contextually, the slight pleasure and its meaning are more important to my buying decision than the strongly felt delight in the same environment.   

Secondly, and as with attitudes, there is a certain moderation of emotions under conditions of frequent use, which would include most of our relationships with consumer or business environments. This means they are subject to homeostatic regulation. This does not denude their importance, but you do not go around feeling emotions strongly all the time, nor should you. This ‘frequency effect’ is often missed in one-shot experiments. You visit Waitrose once, you feel the emotion of pleasure. You go a hundred times, you feel it less. A nine out of 10 satisfaction score on the first visit decays to an eight out of 10 by the time of your 100th.

But so what? We make decisions to buy or browse from retailers outside the store. We respond to the requirement to decide on where to shop by drawing on the experiences in our memory. In many instances, the emotions that shape our decisions are little more than a light flicker.

Emotions are defined by evolutionary theories

My final concern is the reliance on Paul Ekman’s work to validate what an emotion is. His study and analysis of facial reactions are based on evolutionary theory, not consumer environments. They are not set-in-stone truisms about emotion in all its manifestations. In fact one of the constant problems of emotion is that there are so few consumer-based studies on what constitutes an emotion or its semantic representation.

Businesses need to be aware of how confusing emotional terminology can be. Emotions in consumer contexts are often about how one feels towards an object. This is different from what one feels within themselves. For example, saying I’m happy ‘with’ this computer I’m typing on is not the same as saying I feel happy because the sun is shining.

It’s great that researchers are paying more attention to emotions. My concern is that the pendulum is swinging too far away from where we have been – that rationality matters, emotion doesn’t – towards a view that emotion matters, rationality doesn’t. But the key is what drives response – and to understand that, both emotion and rationality need to be modelled.

Steven Walden is senior head of research and consulting at Beyond Philosophy. He has written previously on the topic of emotional measurement here

1 Comment

8 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful piece Steven. I think the essence of the issue is this - what drives behaviour? Although it's been shorthand for years, the emotion vs rational model is an unhelpful dichotomy here (hence my comment which you quoted above). Our work is based on Kahneman/Camerer's dual system approach (behaviour requires a fluid interaction between controlled and automatic processes, and between cognitive and affective systems) and we have a model of 'neuro-psychological goals' derived from neuroscience, cognitive & social psychology that we use to explain behaviour, including brand choice (it's the best I've seen in my 25 years client-side brand management experience). We find this approach immensely more helpful than simply emotional & rational. In this context, the role of emotion is as a way of understanding where I am in my level of goal attainment. Emotion on its own is not sufficient. It's perfectly possible, for example, to like something but not want it - so the crucial thing is to understand the underlying goal, because that's the behavioural driver.

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