Picturing Emotions in Research

Jun 07 2016

TapestryWorks has been using Visual Think Cards® for several years now to capture human goals and the emotions and contexts that are associated with them. For most branding applications, these work very well to elicit the balance of positive and negative sentiment associated with a category, brand or experience.

However, sometimes we need to dig deeper into emotions, especially when the topic is more serious and with darker feelings. On these occasions, we have often used a model of human emotions based on evolutionary biology and psychology (read more here and here about Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions).

It’s often difficult to articulate the details of emotions, especially when they are complex and negative. And it’s even more difficult to do this in many Asian countries where emotional vocabularies are limited (to be honest, even the English language with its impossibly large vocabulary can struggle to articulate more nuanced emotions, let alone get agreement on their meaning).

That’s why TapestryWorks have spent time over the last year developing a set of visual stimulus to help research participants articulate the full range of positive and negative emotions, using Robert Plutchik’s model as a rich framework consisting of 48 separate emotions, the relationships between the emotions and the underlying evolutionary purpose of each.

The final set of images was used in some recent work on the political landscape in a South East Asian country. As it’s not always easy to articulate your real feelings, especially about politics and politicians, the image cards were invaluable in capturing the richness of participant reactions and the core primary emotions underlying them.

For example, while there were four core emotions at the heart of the feelings of most participants, these played in different ways among different groups when combined with other aspects of their feelings and behaviour.

Anticipation, the emotion associated with exploration and seeking new territory and building knowledge (associated with play and creativity) was not a common primary emotion when describing feelings evoked by politics. But it was very commonly blended with other emotions to show differences in the reactions of different groups of people.

On one side, some people expressed aggression, the combination of anticipation and anger. On the other side, some people expressed pessimism, the combination of anticipation and sadness. The difference between these two expressions was strongly correlated with the difference between those who were more active in seeking to change the situation and those who were more passive in shying away from such involvement.

The difference is very important in terms of building solutions, with some people easier to engage with the right strategy, while others need a different approach to get them to engage with the issues as a starting point.

Solving any social issue requires first of all understanding the underlying emotions, positive and negative, in order to find ways to overcome the emotional challenges that people face. If one of the primary reactions is disgust (a fundamental rejection of something), then you know that the first thing to do is to build trust (the opposite of disgust).

If you are struggling to get people to articulate their real feelings, then it might be time to forget struggling for the right words, and get visual instead. Emotions are difficult to express at the best of times, but we all understand them and “we know it when we see it”.

If you want to understand and change how people really feel about something, then seeing the right emotions is the first step to creating a solution.


Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology and Evolution by Robert Plutchik

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