Emotional DNA: Leveraging Science to Quantify Emotion

A Picture of Ryan Baum

Quantitative market research studies capture a sizeable number of data points that are successively utilized by companies seeking to gain insights on consumer behaviors and attitudes. When attempting to better understand the marketplace, researchers generally like to capture an array of attributes from consumer survey respondents in the form of statements. These could be broad, or specific to a category or brand. For example, a company might include a broad attributional statement like “It’s a brand that meets my needs”, or a company that sells soda may include an industry-specific attributional statement like “It’s a soda that tastes great.” These statements are then analyzed to gauge what specifically correlates to higher sales.

There’s no doubt that understanding how attributional statements correlate with sales is extremely useful knowledge that companies can leverage to sell more of their goods and services. However, while companies have capitalized on these learnings, they have long been ignoring another hugely important element: a measurable understanding of the deep emotional connections consumers have with their goods and services. It’s astonishing that for years, even the world’s largest corporations have not been quantitatively measuring emotion in scientific ways. It’s very possible that the most important thing contributing to a company’s bottom line could be an in depth understanding of a product or brand’s emotional DNA.

Picture1For decades psychologists have studied emotion in a systematic way, and it’s time for market researchers to leverage scientific findings uncovered throughout the years. Psychologists agree on six to eight basic emotions, which are universal regardless of language or culture. The adjacent image visualizes one widely excepted model created by renowned psychologist Robert Plutchik. This model includes eight basic emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust, trust and anticipation. These emotions lay the foundation for all others, and when combined or measured to varying degrees, an array of new secondary emotions arise.

A good analogy is comparing emotions to color. There are three primary colors, red, blue and yellow. When mixing primary colors together, an infinite number of other colors can be created. This same concept can applied to emotion. When mixing basic emotions to various degrees, we form secondary emotions. For example, according to Plutchik’s model, if you combine the emotions “joy” and “anticipation”, the emotion “optimism” is formed. Basic emotions can also be felt at differing intensities. For example, “anger” felt at a lower intensity can be described as “annoyance”, while “anger” felt at a higher intensity can be described as “rage”. This is why when a person visits a psychologist, and is asked how they feel about something, that person may not be able to describe such. They may feel confused if they’re experiencing multiple emotions to differing degrees.

Emotion has an additional dimension that color cannot provide. This is called “valence”, which categorizes emotional experiences as positive or negative. For example, if someone tells us they trust a particular product, trust exists as a positive emotion, and thus has “positive valence”. Likewise, emotions such as anger and fear have “negative valence”. Furthermore, it’s possible that consumers might feel no emotional connection at all with something, which is of course very important for companies to know. This doesn’t bode well for sales, and something should be done to create “positive valence”.

In most research scenarios, emotions shouldn’t only be measured once, but tracked over time. This is because people’s attitudes towards brands, products and services change. Even if a product remains unchanged, industries or environments are always fluctuating, which may make consumers feel differently about a product that has remained unchanged. In the long run, when enough emotional measurements are gathered over time, companies can gain a better understanding of how consumer perceptions change related to their brands, products and services. This allows companies to compare emotional scores with sales numbers, and understand what correlates to higher sales.

Currently, few companies are systematically measuring emotion in the same way psychologists and cognitive scientists have been for years. If researchers can standardize quantitative emotional measurements, both companies and consumers stand to benefit. Companies will know how and when to make more of whatever it is that makes consumers happy, and consumer satisfaction will rise. We already possess the know-how to quantitatively measure emotions…all we need to do is start.

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