Is it possible to measure emotion?
I don’t think so, at least not with a survey. Emotions are largely unconscious and experienced in the moment; asking customers to accurately remember and score them after the event misrepresents the nature of emotions.
That doesn’t mean we should give up on the idea of trying to understand emotions. Here are some tactics we can try…
Qualitative research is all about trying to build up a picture of how customers think and feel, and the context that shapes that. Emotions, as we saw in a previous post, are a vital part of the picture.
The mistake people often make is thinking that qualitative research is about what customers say. It’s not, it’s about why they said it. Good qualitative research digs beneath the surface to understand the deep psychological needs and reasons for customers’ behaviour, thoughts, and feelings. That’s where the emotions sit.
How do we do that? It starts by asking probing questions, but ultimately it means we need to add a layer of interpretation; so qualitative research is never entirely objective. To counteract the subjectivity of interpretation, we can turn to established models.
Models to interpret
In her excellent book “MindFrames“, Wendy Gordon outlines 6 distinct lenses we can use when trying to make sense of what customers say, based on decades of practice. This is a good example of a tendency that all qualitative researchers have to build up mental models to help them translate from what customers say and do in order to understand why.
Good researchers keep up to date with what the cognitive sciences have to tell us about how the human mind works, looking for ways to translate that into the messy real world of customer experience.
Measurement (not questions)
What about measurement? Why can’t we take something like Plutchik’s list of basic emotions and ask customers to score them on a scale? There’s nothing stopping you from trying, but I don’t believe it often works. Introspection is a terrible tool for understanding our unconscious mind, and you’ll find that a few easy to articulate emotions such as “anger” dominate.
So what can we do?
- Focus on causes and outcomes. Qualitative work can highlight which events and behaviours cause emotions, and which outcomes derive from them. Those are often easier to measure quantitatively.
- Interpret. Know that what customers say is not always the true cause. If they give a low score for waiting times, understand that anxiety may well be the real problem.
- Use non-survey methods. Sometimes it’s possible to measure emotion in the moment, without asking customers directly. IDEO’s laugh detector is a good example of this.
- Quantify verbatims. Customers usually reveal more about their emotions in their verbatim comments. It’s relatively easy to find (or build) dictionaries that will score comments for emotion. This works to a point, but be aware that you are only working at the surface level of what customers say, not at the deeper level of why.
The future for emotions
The latest scientific evidence suggests that emotions may be less innate, less universal, and less monolithic than they feel to us. Lisa Feldman Barrett in “How Emotions are Made” says:
“…your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.”
That points us even more firmly away from trying to measure them in any straightforward way.