The Anatomy of Emotion (Consumer Understanding #2)

Mar 11 2011

The growing brain

As we have learnt, the brain didn’t spring into being but emerged over time.  The most obvious evidence for the evolution of the brain is its structure. Firstly, our brain is quite large, but not as large as some other animals.  However, relative to our body mass, the brain outweighs all our fellow creatures! Interestingly, one of the common threads between those animals with relatively larger brain sizes is that they are all very social animals.

As our brain has grown in size, it has also become more divided, with very separate left and right hemispheres.  There are clear evolutionary advantages to having two separate focuses of attention in a brain which is otherwise massively inter-connected (see article #3), but this is not the main focus here and will be the subject of a future post.

Three brains

Although the brain is divided in half, the more important anatomical distinction is between the three evolutionary stages of the brain.  At its core, linked directly to the brain stem, the oldest part of our brains comes from our reptilian ancestors, controlling our most basic functions such as breathing.  On top of our reptile brain, is our mammalian brain, including the limbic system and amygdala.  This is the seat of all our basic emotions (animal drives), and it’s centrality in the brain indicates its importance.

On top of this sits the newest part of our brain, which gives it it’s distinctive folded and grey appearance (the folds are simply to maximise surface area and hence mental capacity).  Essentially, all of this means that our brain is not a single system, but a bundle of different parts, plummed together over time.  It has been described as a kluge (a word used to describe computer fixes and patches which are inelegant but work!).

And the brain does work very well.  It is hugely efficient, running on the energy of a typical lightbulb, which is why it focuses on making as much of our behaviour as possible automatic and “thoughtless” (the subject of later articles in this series).  Our brain systems are constantly learning and adapting to the environment, finding the easiest and quickest shortcuts to maximise rewards, driven by the goals we discussed in article #1.

Emotions are fantastically efficient short cuts for us, helping us to navigate the world quickly, safely and pleasurably (while avoiding the more unpleasant and sometimes dangerous things which litter our paths).  In fact, we cannot function properly without emotions, and Antonio Damasio and others have demonstrated that they are essential to decision making.  Those who experience damage to their emotional systems are often incapable of taking decisions, and brain scans have shown that feelings and emotions precede our more rational thoughts (which are usually afterthoughts, late arrivals long after the event).

While we all enjoyed watching Dr Spock in Star Trek, and his uncomfortable relationship with his more emotional colleagues, the reality is that humans would be unable to function effectively with his biology!

Getting emotional in research

Much of traditional research, even in qualitative work, assumes a very rational model of how consumers make decisions and process information, but the evidence is overwhelmingly that this is false.  Most of our conscious processing is post hoc, trying to make sense of what we have done, or of new information which does not fit an existing pattern.  But these reflect a tiny proportion of our daily behaviours and decisions, which are overwhelmingly learnt behaviours (habits) and instinctive reactions to our environment (see later articles).

There are many sophisticated ways to try and access consumer emotions, and new tools are constantly being developed, even within market research.  However, brain scans (and other measurement approaches) are often impractical in the context of research, and there is one tried and tested approach, which researchers have been using from the beginnings of the industry!

Words lie, but the face doesn’t

The key for research is to rely more on observation and less on the words that participants use: facial expressions and body language can usually tell us much more than verbal responses about underlying feelings and sentiment (something which experienced moderators do instinctively).  Paul Ekman has spent his life codifying 43 micro-expressions which appear on the face, contributing to seven universal human emotions which can be read by all of us (across cultures and demographics).  The seven universal emotions are fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and, of course, happiness.

We are all remarkably skilled at reading these signals in others (and often then reflecting these back with empathic responses).  These, along with body language, and the timing (and pauses) in verbal responses can provide a very rounded picture of what participants really think of a new concept, brand advertising or recent service experience, but they naturally depend on being physically present to see the participant (rather than remotely reading a transcript or processing a survey response).

So often faces reveal the hidden truth of behaviour, just as in the TV drama series Lie to Me, which is based on the facial coding system developed by Ekman.  The system has also been applied extensively in market research, most notably by Dan Hill, who details a number of different applications of his more scientific approach to reading faces in his book Emotionomics.

Our limbic system is also active in learning (we remember much better when new information has emotional resonance).  So we make decisions, remember events and learn through our emotions.  Emotions are truly at the centre of the consumer mind!

If you would like to learn more about this topic, join our training program here.


Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman (2007)

Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio (2005)

Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success by Dan Hill (2010)

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