Exploring and Measuring Emotion: Neuropsychology and Visual Thinking

Oct 04 2014

Our emotional brain speaks the language of experience, dominated by our visual world. It’s time for research to start talking the same language as the emotional brain.

Let’s face it – as researchers we spend most of our lives in the verbal sphere. But does that make sense? And, in particular, does it make sense to try and understand human emotions through questions and answers or sets of words? We are living in the visual age, where many claim that visual literacy is on the rise, with the use of multiple screens and the importance of the moving image in TV, film and online (read a review of The Age of the Image here). But humans have always been more visual than verbal, and technology is now allowing us to share visual information more easily than ever before. So there is no longer an excuse for market research!

Emotions are experienced physically and not verbally, and although word labels help us to categorize and communicate our experience, they are always inadequate to describe how we feel. Our first language when we are born is emotion, expressed non-verbally!  Words and language are not the same as thinking, let alone feeling.

Our experience shapes our language and not the other way around, as we see in the way we use metaphors to relate our thinking and language back to something that we really understand – physical experience. Visual perception is the single largest component of our experience. Most of our brain’s capacity is taken up in processing sensory information of which 90% is visual. It is estimated that one third to one half of our brain is focused on processing visual information.

Visual thinking is vital to creativity too, and the use of imagery and metaphor is at the heart of most of the major advances in science. For example, Einstein imagined riding on a light wave when he was developing his Theory of Relativity.

In Asia there is an even greater emphasis on the role of non-verbal cues in communication, and of course many Asian language are much more visual than Western languages. Context is the main reason that words themselves convey so much less information than pictures. Most words need qualification with context for us to understand their meaning.  The right picture can convey an idea much more clearly than the right word, and without the problem of finding a translation that conveys the richness of meanings that are associated with some words. And a picture creates meaning in our minds in the ‘blink of an eye’, whereas words require time and effort.

Humans can speak before we can speak (so to speak), using the non-verbal language of emotions to communicate our feelings even as a new-born child.

What do I mean by emotions? There is a lot of literature on emotion, and the words emotion and feeling can have a range of meanings (perhaps another case of needing context to qualify the meaning of a word by itself?). Here is a definition that I think captures all the important aspects of the nature and role of emotion in human behavior:

“Emotions are evolved mechanisms for motivating behavior, helping us to seek what we need to survive by guiding us towards what we like and find pleasurable, while avoiding what may be harmful, damaging or painful. Emotions are a way to assess and interact with our ever-changing environment, taking into account our current needs and past experiences.” (from Kringelbach & Phillips, page 123)

Emotions are there to motivate us to adapt to our environment and encourage ‘rewarding’ behaviours. Work on emotions in animals has confirmed at least seven (7) separate emotions (behaviours) that have their own neural circuitry. These are Seeking, Fear, Rage, Care, Panic (or grief), Lust and Play. And, of course, humans experience these too.

Seeking behavior is arguably the most primary emotion-related behavior. This may reflect that the brain and central nervous system, and hence emotions, evolved for one primary purpose. So we could move around, making animals different from plants. Our brains evolved so we could approach things in the environment associated with positive rewards and avoid things associated with negative outcomes.

Recent research in evolutionary psychology shows that emotional goals frame human decision making and that each have their own sub-systems or modules in the brain, as work on animals shows.  Our changing environment is the trigger for emotions and behaviours that help us adapt to that environment to achieve our goals.

In one experiment, the choice of restaurant for a date depended on which movie the participants had seen before making their decision. If participants had seen a scary movie, they chose a restaurant that was popular, with lots of other people around, whereas if they had seen a romantic movie, they chose a much more exclusive restaurant where they could be alone with their dinner date.

When your goal is self-protection, your ‘self protection’ module takes control, filtering incoming information according to its relevance to this particular goal. If the information is not relevant to this goal, then it’s likely to get ignored as in the Invisible Gorilla experiment. That’s why the most important thing to know about your customer is their goal.

Of course, emotions are communicated non-verbally as Charles Darwin and others have shown. Paul Ekman believes there are six or seven fundamental emotions that are communicated socially through micro-expressions on the face.

These facial emotions have been used in market research, but they are somewhat biased towards negative emotions. Joy or Happiness is the only completely positive emotion in Paul Ekman’s work. Surely there are different types of Happiness? Joy can come from exploration, from social bonding, from being appreciated, from learning something new or in a number of other ways.

TapestryWorks focuses on twelve core motivations and the archetypes that relate to them. These are care, belonging, intimacy, play, rebellion, discovery (i.e., seeking), creativity, independence, mastery, knowledge, stability and innocence.

Thinking about motivations, helps to understand the relationship between positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions are associated with achieving goals, while negative ones are associated with not achieving them, or with an excessive focus on a particular goal. If your goal is understanding then you value feeling clever, expert, analytical, thoughtful and wise, but you don’t want to feel ignorant, and you need to be careful that you don’t become too dogmatic in your opinions.

The great thing about using visuals is that you talk less and learn more, and you can use the research stimuli to create the outputs and report (clients think visually too!).

I can illustrate this approach to emotions and visual thinking with a case study. The project started as an evaluation of an advertising campaign by a Hong Kong telecommunications brand, 1O1O. They had launched their first high profile campaign for many years, targeting entrepreneurs, expats and business travelers who were key targets for this brand (although there were other segments too).  Initial indications showed that performance targets were not being met and the client wanted to understand why their campaign was not working.

We did some initial decoding of the campaign and hypothesized that there were mixed messages in the campaign executions that would cause confusion. Were the people depicted in individual executions, independent or arrogant? And were they rebellious or destructive?

After an initial review of the category and other brands, we talked to individual customers about their relationship with the brand and then their reaction to the advertising itself, identifying the emotions that they associated with the brand and advertising and also exploring their overall needs from the category – what would they want to feel from an ideal brand?

We found some consistent themes coming from participants. Customers did not want to be rebels or fighters, but were more interested in safety, connection, knowledge and creativity. However, there was a hierarchy of these emotions, with reliability and care of the network enabling customers to ‘stay in the know’ and create their own opportunities.

When exposed to the advertising, there was a clear disconnect between the imagery and the aspirations of the customers, who did not make a strong association between the advertising themes and the brand or category. They were not seeing the advertising because they had different goals!

When we later quantified these aspirations in a bigger segmentation study, it was clear that these customers were a little different to other Hong Kong mobile phone users. Business travellers looked for confidence and the innovative spirit, entrepreneurs were a little rebellious in the sense of wanting to make an impact on the world and geeks wanted to have fun and be different (cheeky rather than rebellious).

All of these segments sought reliability and connectedness, but only in order to enable them to achieve knowledge and other goals We recommended to the client to focus on a combination of knowledge and transformation, as the core of the brand promise, updating rather than reinventing the brand’s existing values. This also linked back to the brand’s history as being reliable and ‘efficient’ (getting things done), and the Guru makes sense in the age of data. 

The case study demonstrates that emotional language is critical for brand communication, and that imagery matters far more than words. If you want to speak to the emotional brain, then you need to speak the language of emotions and think visually.

[This is an expanded version of a presentation for Qual360 in Singapore on 2 October 2014. You can view the presentation on Slideshare.]


The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screeens by Stephen Apkon

Brand esSense: Using sense, symbol and story to design brand identity by Neil Gains

The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think by Douglas Kenrick & Vladas Griskevicius

Emotion: Pleasure and pain in the brain by Morten Kringelbach & Helen Phillips

The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion by Jaak Panksepp & Lucy Biven

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