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OPINION1 June 2011

Emotional research is about more than just measurement

Behavioural economics

Measuring emotions is vital, says Nick Coates. But understanding how they combine and evolve to shape our lives requires more creativity.

Researchers are increasingly interested in emotion, and rightly so. Even in highly rational, feature-rich categories like life insurance, b2b telephony or transport, it’s obvious that rational explanations mask the importance of emotions. We act as much, if not more, because of how we feel about things as because of the facts and product features laid before us. We overlook emotions at our peril.

“The problem with measuring emotions is that it’s highly reductive. It wants to boil things down to single emotions or keywords. It’s a ‘thin’ rather than ‘thick’ reading of life”

So let’s be clear: I’m a fan of exploring emotions in research, in fact I think it’s essential. But I’m also concerned. There is currently a proliferation of techniques and technologies that purport to help us understand feelings better: neuroscience, facial analysis, emoticon-based scales in survey questions. I worry that in our eagerness to focus on emotions, we are simply substituting one imperfect frame of reference for another. I worry particularly about the archaeological drive in this area of research – the belief that we are always getting closer to the truth, to the ‘real’ drivers of behaviour. Much of the language of emotional research products uses archaeology as metaphor – ‘mining’, ‘depth’, going ‘beneath’.

The other thing is that much of the emotions arms race seems to focus on measuring. The problem with measuring emotions, to my mind, is that it’s highly reductive. It tends to want to boil things down to single emotions or keywords. Emotions have basic ingredients: they can be mapped in terms of degree of intensity and whether they’re positive, negative, introverted or extroverted. This is useful in identifying responses to products and experiences but it doesn’t always help in painting a rich, three-dimensional picture. It’s a ‘thin’ rather than ‘thick’ reading of life.

Being more precise about emotional response can, I’m sure, help us be more precise about things like predicting which of a range of adverts will perform best. Some of the new techniques for looking at the relationship between certain emotional responses and marketing effectiveness will be useful – and probably objectively better than some of the existing evaluative approaches based on what people say they like. But if we want to work creatively with emotions, what then? If we think about our discipline as contributing as much to development as to understanding, as much to the future as to the present, don’t we need a more nuanced approach to emotions?

I’d like to propose a complementary point of view: a qualitative perspective based on storytelling. In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim identifies an early use of fairy tales and bedtime stories. Before children have learned to explain how they feel in language, they latch on to stories, archetypes and metaphors because they allow them to express anxieties, hopes and relationships that they don’t yet have words or symbols to describe. One of Bettelheim’s child patients, for example, felt a strong affinity with Hansel and Gretel. In analysis it became clear to him that the connection had to do with a sense of inadequacy in relation to her elder brother, whom she associated with Hansel. It’s Gretel, in the case of this patient, who emerges triumphant, killing the witch and showing that the younger child can succeed and emerge from the shadow of an elder sibling. This is, of course, just one interpretation of the story, but that’s the whole point: interpretation is always subjective.

I’m not sure adults ever lose this need to relate to and identify with characters, situations and stories. If we use fairy tales as a starting point, we can help people identify and work with emotions and relationships. We can also play with stories and fairy tale structures in group situations to explore and experiment with future scenarios.

As a feature of the market research debate, storytelling has largely been discussed as a presentation technique. But it has a wider contribution to make. It’s an expressive act which helps us access emotions, it’s a universal cultural convention which we all know how to do, and, importantly, it’s sequential – it helps engage with how things connect and unfold, rather than just diagnosing the steps.

So if we’re interested in the syntax of emotions – how they combine, how they evolve, how they allow people to find meaning – then asking people to create stories can be a powerful tool in the creative research armoury. In our work at Promise we use drawing, storytelling (most recently love stories), roleplay and automatic writing – where people write without reflecting or allowing the pen to stop. A story has no meaning until it’s heard or read. But hearing the story told, and engaging the teller in their interpretation of the story can help activate emotion, which is fuel for productive collaboration.
Let’s stop just analysing emotions and start learning to play with them.

Nick Coates is research director at Promise Corporation


8 years ago

Agree wholeheartedly that it's a challenge to "measure" emotions (against what scale?). Creative approaches to qualitative -- like storytelling and other expressive approaches -- help us understand what kind of emotional feelings are often associated with brands, decision-making, experiences, etc. This learning then can be applied to strategies and inspire/inform creative so they will be more relevant and compelling.

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8 years ago

Great article. I am of the opinion that it will always be extremely difficult to measure emotion, as it is usually something so personal that others will never be able to understand. On the otherhand, passion (as part of the overall emotion set) is more measurable, and in my eyes, an easier way for brands to connect with the everyday person (though life situations).

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8 years ago

It was George Bernard Shaw who said, 'England and America are two countries separated by the same language. I think the same is true of neuroscience and marketing. I believe many of these new measures do measure emotion, (but being someone who uses new science and technologies and even invented a few new measures myself I probably would say that). However I think the real issue is that what neuroscience understands is ‘an emotion’ is not the same as what a marketer or advertiser understands as ‘an emotion’. There is hope in lots of these new measures but a better understanding of exactly what these measures are measuring is key in getting the most out of them. Though the point about putting that in an accessible narrative is well made.

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8 years ago

Excellent. Right on the money. There is not magic bullet. Combining methodologies will bring clearer insights than any one method. Well done.

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