First published in Research World November/December 2010
Dan Hill, the author of Emotionomic is with us today. The book is a very powerful read. Could you summarise the theme of the book and how it impacts what we do?
Descartes said 300-something years ago, “I think, therefore I am.” Since then the Western world, business and many research practices have largely followed a cognitive, rational approach. Our verbal abilities reside in the rational part of the brain but the reality is we’ve known, since shortly after World War Two, that human beings have three brains coming from different stages of evolution: the sensory, the emotional and the rational. Of the three, the rational brain is almost an afterthought; 95% of our brain activity isn’t fully conscious. We are much less in charge of ourselves and much less able to self-report accurately than we believe. Secondly, the emotional brain sends ten times as many signals to the rational brain as vice versa. Thirdly, the emotional response happens first, and happens five times more quickly than the rational response. If you want to get to real-time results for research, it means you need to go beyond traditional measures to capture the unintended reaction which is intuitive, subconscious, and very quick.
I find it very interesting when reading the book that the rational brain has been around for perhaps, what, 50,000 years?
100,000 years is the usual estimate, somewhere in that range, while the emotional brain is much, much older – millions of years
Knowing this, how can we leverage it in a business sense?
Engagement, is really about motivation. ‘Emotion’ and ‘motivation’ have the same root word in Latin, which is ‘to move’, or ‘to make something happen’. The first task of any kind of research testing, particularly advertising, is whether or not you are given a reason to pay attention and to care. If people don’t have an emotional response you’re essentially not in the game. Once you are in the game then emotions still matter, because loyalty is a feeling after all – ‘customer’ satisfaction is probably the only term that directly or obliquely references emotions in business. Something strikes us as shocking, novel, interesting, pertinent, and it makes a connection.
In the book you also show us how emotion affects sales, how it affects the retail environment, management as a whole.
We do a lot of work in the pharmaceutical category … where the sales reps have nanoseconds with the doctor. A script that creates a mental picture, gives them a reason to care, then maybe (if you’re lucky) it takes a minute-and-a-half meeting to a seven minute meeting because there’s a connection. On an executive level, there’s a study that a company CEO can create 50% of the environment within a company and that this environment can drive up to 30% of productivity of the workforce.
We researchers pride ourselves on being the voice of the consumer, but clearly if things are self-reported, then we’re not getting the full story. How do we actually get to that real, emotional reason, which is driving action?
Now we’re getting onto a big topic. I was inspired by an article in American Demographics which talks about the breakthroughs in brain science. It made so much sense to me that we are largely intuitive, emotional decision-makers. It raises a fundamental question, if Daniel Goldman’s comment “people don’t think their feelings, they feel their feelings” is to be taken seriously then capturing emotions needs to be done non-verbally. Our verbal abilities reside in the rational, conscious, cognitive part of the brain, so a new toolset is required. That’s the dilemma I found myself facing twelve years ago, if you start to look at emotion from a scientific basis, there are several tools out there which focus on this area – respiration, eye blinks and heart rate. They measure the level of arousal. When you look at valence (bio chemistry), the tool-set is pretty tight. You’ve got biofeedback, which I initially used, but biofeedback only looks at two muscles in the face. It cannot get you to a true smile, it also can’t help you understand many of the negative emotions, and even the tools that can help with more refined emotions do not compensate for the other ways in which a face may reveal emotion – that’s not the specific muscle that biofeedback works with.
Brain scans are also very problematic because of cost and the degree of invasiveness. That leaves two tools, EEGs and facial coding. Of the two, EEG, I believe does a tremendous job in terms of activity, but the problems of conductivity and spool, people having different spool shapes and fluid in the brain – it becomes really complex. The reading from an EEG in the front of the skull create different problems, you’re really looking at an approach/avoid model, that’s what it’s rooted in, and unfortunately both happiness and anger are ‘approach’ emotions, though for different reasons. Happiness is ‘approach’ because you’re embracing, welcoming it, anger because you feel there’s a barrier to progress and you want to break through it. You can’t distinguish between the two, so in effect it corrupts or ruins the ability to take affect, to be balanced. So, there is no perfect tool, but in I think that facial coding is a solid way to capture specific emotions. First Charles Darwin and then Paul Ekman systematically went through emotions and, in the case of Ekman, figured out which muscles correspond to which emotions. Then we’re working from 43 muscles, not two muscles as biofeedback does.
Tell us a little bit more about facial coding. There are 43 muscles, but there are seven emotions, you’ve layered these into a rather more nuanced set?
We’re working from the foundational work done by Dr Ekman and his colleagues between 1965 and possibly 1978. They systematically figured out ‘action units’, which are combinations of muscle activities that correspond to one or more emotions. The overall system is called the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS. Let me give two examples: Anger, there are about six ways you can show anger in a face. It ranges from, slight annoyance, all the way to outrage. In the case of outrage, the intensity’s much higher and the valence (chemistry) will be negative. On the positive side, there’s actually a separation between a true smile and a social smile. A true smile uses the muscles around the eye – they relax giving a “twinkle in the eye.” It’s also called a true smile because, Woody Allen aside, people can’t manipulate the muscles around their eyes and forehead.
In the book you have some very powerful examples, where you’ve used the facial coding system to show that the self-reported data coming out of a survey was actually diametrically opposite to the reality of the situation. Give us a couple of examples of where you found that.
One that’s of interest comes from the automotive sector looking at whether or not people are eco-friendly. The good answer, the socially acceptable one, is that it matters, but what we found was when you really looked at print ads, the ‘me’ won out over the ‘we’. The same with food choices the thinking: ‘I know this food is good for me, but jeez, I really like the one with more fat, sugar, whatever the case may be’. This notion that 20th-century advertising, was really about being ‘on message’, have been replaced by breakthrough’s in brain science showing you should be ‘on emotion’ – the right emotion at the right time for the right purpose.
What does that say about the talent that we need to recruit into the industry, and the types of skills that we’re going to need in the future?
You’re going to need a much more interdisciplinary team of researchers if you want to deliver best value. Researchers in the future are going to need to be emotionally literate. They will also need to be visually literate. Half the brain is devoted to processing visuals, so I don’t think you can really test and understand and make recommendations on advertising if you don’t have a profound appreciation and understanding of visual properties. We use visual coding as well as eye tracking in our work. They are going to have to read a lot, to keep abreast of all the developments because this is fast moving field.
Dan Hill is president of Sensory Logic in the USA and author of Emotionomics