Emotional Measurement in Qualitative Research: Key Considerations

Market Research, Qualitative Research

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Prefrontal Cortex, Limbic System, System 1, Behavioral Economics, Emotional Quotient – all phrases that didn’t matter in the market research industry until recently (the definition of recently being up for debate). The point is, market researchers have learned that emotions play a critical role in consumer behavior and satisfaction. 

Knowing that emotions play a role and knowing which emotions play what role are two very different things. While no one has all the answers to this problem (and all the answers may not even exist), here are some issues to consider when you take on the task of understanding emotions in a business context.

  • Segmentation: It’s not news that people are different from one another. But particularly with emotional measurement, the emotions that people feel about a category, product, or brand are often related to their degree of engagement. For example, heavy users of Apple have a different and deeper emotional connection to the products and brand than moderate users of Apple. In addition to engagement, the emotional nature of the individual person can play a role in the connection to the brand. There are several ‘personality traits’ type models that can help structure the understanding that comes through qualitative research.
  • Context: When delving into the emotions elicited by a category, product, or brand – context can be incredibly important depending on the nature of the product and the situations in which the product is used. Some products are personal by nature in that there is not much social interaction related to the product. Cleaning supplies are a reasonable example in that they are generally used in a private setting (Saturday morning around the house) and not part of a large social effort. In contrast, birthday cakes are almost always used in a social setting – be it large or small. The emotions elicited by either can be generally viewed as the emotions in any situation where these products are used. But let’s take the example of coffee. Coffee is sometimes used in personal settings and sometimes in social settings. The emotions elicited in each can be very different from each other with the exact same product. 


  • Conscious: Many of the System 1 approaches would have you believe that all emotions are nonconscious or the decisions made from these emotions are all nonconscious. While this may be true for some people, most can articulate real emotions with a modest degree of depth and accuracy. Happy vs. Sad, Scared vs. Comforted, etc. In situations where nuance is not warranted, in depth interviews (and a good tool kit from a moderator) may be sufficient to uncover the emotions and emotional drivers for a project.
  • Nonconscious – Implicit vs. Biometric Measures: In those cases where nuance is required or the respondent may be either unwilling or unable to understand or articulate, implicit association and biometric feedback are the two categories of tools that offer the most insight. A distinction is made here because definitions of these two words are wavering – Implicit is any tool that delves into nonconscious emotions but does not measure some component of the body in doing so. For (at least our definition of) implicit, the tool kit is generally an implicit association test or metaphor elicitation. There are several good tools and techniques that fall in or near these definitions. Biometric feedback has made important advance in quality and cost over the past few years and is therefore being used by more and more clients. The most common of these tools are eye-tracking and facial coding. Others that are reasonably available for qualitative research include Galvanic Skin Response, EEG, fMRI, and heart rate monitoring. While these are still early in their evolution and there is much to learn, these tools can help researchers understand emotions and emotional triggers.

Emotional measurement is difficult. However, with guidance and tools, it is easier than it ever has been, and these tools make a useful addition to the qualitative researcher’s toolkit to help deliver deeper insights that deliver greater business value.