How You Define Emotion Directs How You Measure It

[Note: This article was adapted from Paul Conner’s presentation at the 2018 Neuromarketing World Forum and from the ensuing article published in NMSBA’s INSights, Issue 23, May 2018.]

The Importance of Emotion

Emotion is among the top 5, maybe even among the top 3, issues in marketing these days. A couple of recent blogs make that clear.

A Forbes blog says the following are among the top marketing trends in 2018:

  • “…master the new art of emotional engagement.”
  • “…provide the moments that [consumers] seek to feel connected and emotionally engaged.”
  • “transform storytelling into … lasting emotional connections.”

Another blog, from Andy Myers of Walnut Unlimited, says this:

“Emotion is the buzz word in marketing this year, with more and more brands using emotion at the forefront of their campaigns.”

Point: Emotion is important in the world of marketing.

Based on that importance, and based on a phenomenon that seems intuitive, one would think that emotion would be, and had been, easily and universally defined. But lo and behold, it’s not. The fact is there is no consistent definition of what emotion is or what emotions are. In a 2015 The Atlantic article, Julie Beck wrote:

“’The only thing certain in the emotion field is that no one agrees on how to define emotion,’ Alan Fridlund, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote to me in an email.”

That being said, there is sufficient agreement to push forward, but not enough to claim superiority of one emotion measurement approach over another. Said another way, in order to decide how to effectively measure emotion, one must define the fundamental characteristics, if not the specific categories, of the emotion they’re measuring.

The Levels of Emotion

To define emotion toward choosing emotion measurement techniques, it’s helpful to view emotions as occurring at different levels. More specifically, “emotion” in general can be conceived as dimensional or discrete, with two levels of discrete emotions — basic (or primary) or secondary. This table lays out these “levels” of emotion.

(Note that the basic or primary emotions listed are Paul Ekman’s 7 [1], which he identified in his facial expressions work, and which are the most commonly cited basic emotions. Other emotion researchers cite different sets of basic emotions.)

What Are Emotions? Two Theories

In addition to identifying the level of emotion you’re interested in, it’s important to subscribe to a theoretical view of what emotions are. Two theories of emotion currently compete among emotion experts:

  • The Basic (or Classical) Theory of Emotion (BET) [2, 3, 4]
  • The Theory of Constructed Emotion (TCE) [5, 6, 7, 8]

Comprehensively defining each theory is beyond the scope of this article. However, I’ll offer two long definitions of each (which were part of my Neuromarketing World Forum presentation):

  • BET says that emotions (particularly basic emotions, but also some secondary emotions) are a small set of core evolutionarily-acquired, innate, pre-wired, universal affective responses to a corresponding set of environmental challenges or opportunities for survival or well-being that are identified by distinct neurological, physiological, and/or behavioral expressions.
  • TCE says that emotions (including basic emotions) are prototypical instances of affectively founded, contextually-specified, goal-based concepts that are degeneratively constructed by the brain to ultimately serve allostasis (a.k.a., “body budgeting”, which is the optimal use and distribution of bodily functions for survival and well-being).

Further distinguishing the two theories, key features of emotions according to BET are that basic emotions are neurophysiologically pre-wired and universal. In other words, within all humans, a certain set of emotions have “fingerprints” or “signatures” in the brain and/or body (including facial expressions) that when activated or expressed indicate the basic emotion one is experiencing.

On the other hand, TCE says that emotions are NOT pre-wired or universal, but constructed anew as concepts (as opposed to distinct neurophysiological substrates) in each emotionally stimulating situation. Commonalities across individuals and cultures come from common learning experiences.

Despite these differences, which are clear and important, the two theories generally share the belief that at the dimensional level (i.e., especially valence and arousal) fingerprints and universality are more evident. However, as the emotions of interest get more discrete, especially at the secondary emotion level, the differences between the two theories become more pronounced.

Ways to Measure Emotion

These two aspects of emotion — level of interest and theory subscribed to — direct the most appropriate and effective ways to measure emotion. Before we present what each theory suggests, here are ways in which emotions can be measured.

  • Neurophysiology involves measuring brain and physiological activity that captures affect and, according to some BET researchers, basic and even some secondary emotions. Common neurophysiological techniques include brain scanning (e.g., via fMRI and EEG) and biometrics (e.g., galvanic skin response, heart rate, and heart rate variability). [9]
  • Behavioral expression involves capturing outward, observable indications of affect and discrete emotions. Common techniques measure facial muscle movement (e.g., electromyography and facial coding), voice expressions, pupil dilation, and even body posture (De Gelder, 2016). [10]
  • Implicit association involves a variety of ways to measure automatic, nonconscious, uncontrollable, System 1 emotionality, including fast reaction-time and indirect, implicit priming. [11]
  • Text analytics and sentiment analysis involve examining the lexical content of unstructured text – for example, in product reviews, social media posts, or open-ended survey responses – for its emotional value. [12]
  • Metaphor elicitation involves eliciting metaphorical writing or speaking – which comes naturally for human beings – and, with expert analysis, evaluating the content for emotional value. [13]
  • Projective techniques involve showing respondents ambiguous images (like Rorschach Inkblots or Thematic Apperception Test scenes) and having them describe what they mean. From their descriptions, and with expert analysis, emotional value can be assessed. [14]
  • Direct self-report involves simply asking people to indicate their emotions toward stimuli of interest on traditional surveys. Rating scales or checklists are commonly used.

What the Theories Suggest Regarding Measuring Emotion

The following tables suggest levels of appropriateness for different emotion measurement techniques as one subscribes to each theory of emotion. These are certainly my suggestions based on my knowledge of the theories and these techniques, and they’re open for discussion.

First, for BET:

Now for TCE:

To summarize, if you subscribe to BET…

  • Neurophysiological techniques are certainly appropriate for affect and primary discrete emotions, but less so for secondary discrete emotions.
  • Implicit and projective techniques work well across all levels.
  • More direct approaches can work, but with cautions that people may not know or otherwise mis-report how their really feel.

However, if you subscribe to TCE…

  • Neurophysiological techniques are really only appropriate at the affective level.
  • The implicit and projective techniques work well across all levels.
  • More direct approaches are more appropriate because these theorists more accept that people’s own constructions of emotions, and how they state them, are truthful.


Emotions are one of the most important issues to study and leverage for marketers in 2018. Psychology and neuroscience recognize emotion as one of the, if not the, primary drivers of human behavior, including consumer behavior. However, emotions are not universally defined, therefore measuring them for marketing advantage presents challenges. Such challenges can be operationally addressed by marketers (1) defining the level of emotion they’re interested in (e.g., affect, primary discrete emotions, or secondary discrete emotions) and (2) subscribing to a theory of emotion that defines their nature (e.g., Basic Emotion Theory or the Theory of Constructed Emotion). Clarifying these issues will direct selection of the most appropriate ways to measure emotion, ultimately leading to the most effective emotional marketing.


[1] Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communications and Emotional Life. Henry Holt & Company, LLC.

[2] Ekman, P., & Cordaro, D. (2011). What is meant by calling emotions basic. Emotion Review, 3, 364–370.

[3] Panksepp, J. (2006). The core emotional systems of the mammalian brain: the fundamental substrates of human emotions. In J. Corrigall, H. Payne, & H. Wilkinson (Eds.). About a Body: working with the embodied mind in psychotherapy. (pp. 14-32) Hove, UK & NYC: Routledge.

[4] Izard, C. E. (2007). Basic emotions, natural kinds, emotion schemas, and a new paradigm. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 260–280.

[5] Barrett, L.F. (2017). How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[6] Russell, J. A. (1994). Is there universal recognition of emotion from facial expression? A review of the cross-cultural studies. Psychological Bulletin, 115 (1), 102-141.

[7] Gendron, M., Roberson, D., van der Vyver, J.M., & Barrett, L.F. (2014). Perceptions of Emotion From Facial Expressions Are Not Culturally Universal: Evidence From a Remote Culture. Emotion, Vol. 14, No. 2, 251–262.

[8] Lindquist K.A., Wager T.D., Kober H., Bliss-Moreau E., Barrett L.F. (2012). The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35 (3), 121-143.

[9] Genco, S.J., & Pohlman, A.P. (2013). Neuromarketing for Dummies. John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.

[10] De Gelder, B. (2016). Emotions and the Body. Oxford University Press.

[11] Nosek B.A., Hawkins C.B., & Frazier, R.S. (2011). Implicit social cognition: from measures to mechanisms. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 15 (4), 152-159.

[12] Liu, B. (2012). Sentiment Analysis and Opinion Mining. Morgan & Claypool Publishers.

[13] Zaltman, G. (2003). How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Markets. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

[14] Donaghue, S. (2000). Projective techniques in consumer research. Journal of Family Ecology and Consumer Sciences, Vol 28, 47-53.

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