What Researchers Can’t See without Measuring Emotion

Brendan Cooney
Director of Behavioral Science, Sentient Decision Science

The discussion guide had been developed with the keenest attention to the latest projective techniques to uncover what participants “are really thinking, but perhaps not saying out loud” about the agency’s latest twist on an emotionally engaging campaign spot. It was daring, it was risky, it was cutting-edge, sure to pull consumers’ heartstrings and loosen their purse strings. Focus groups had been run, notes compiled, transcripts analyzed and re-analyzed. Video reels had been scrutinized and freeze-framed to capture the slightest nuance in participants’ commentary. Quantitative surveys with hundreds of consumers provided additional support, with 80%-plus top-2-box likelihood of purchase after watching the ad spot.

Trouble is, six months into the campaign the client’s financial impact goals had not been met, and the agency finds itself struggling to justify the return on investment. What happened? What did the researchers miss in their extensive qualitative work and quantitative surveys?

A challenge in gauging the emotional impact of concepts or campaigns is that sometimes emotions can be embarrassing to admit or difficult to articulate – indeed, some emotions can render us speechless and no amount of probing or projective techniques will uncover how we truly feel. What’s more, self-report measures of emotional states are subject to respondent biases such as social desirability or acquiescence bias, both of which can lead respondents to under-report negative feelings and over-emphasize positive reactions (see Mauss & Robinson, 2009 for a broad overview of measures of emotion).

Yet we know emotions are important: extensive research over the past decade has revealed that even subtle emotions can have a direct influence on consumers’ subsequent purchase behaviors (see for example, Reid & Gonzalez-Vallejo, 2009). If we’re not measuring emotion, we’re getting only a partial picture of how our clients’ communications influence consumer preferences and choices. To more accurately predict what consumers are going to do, we need a line of sight into this blind spot in a way that bypasses the biases inherent in stated self-assessment measures.

Enter implicit measurement methodologies that can help us uncover the true drivers of human behavior. By measuring emotions at an implicit or non-conscious level, true implicit methodologies use indirect measurements of automatic emotional responses to sidestep the self-editing that can occur when consumers are concerned about self-presentation or simply struggling to rationally explain their gut instincts. When combined with traditional measures of attitudes and reported behaviors, implicit assessments of emotional impact can open up that big blind spot, and greatly enhance our ability to predict which campaign spots, brand communications, or even package designs are going to have the greatest impact on consumer perceptions, attitudes and behaviors.


Sentient Decision Science “Is It Implicit?

Reid Gonzalez Vallejo 2009

Mauss, I.B., and Robinson, M.D. (2009). Measures of emotion: A review. Cognition & Emotion, 23(2), 209-237.

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