Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Understanding and Measuring the Role of Emotions in Consumer Behavior

By David Forbes, Ph.D.

In results from both business and academic research, it’s become increasingly evident that emotions control as much or more of our behavior than rational thinking… And while we might use rational thoughts (formed in the higher brain) to justify our decisions, it’s often the feelings (from our primitive, or limbic brains) that run the show.

As these findings have begun to impact the strategies of market research, the need to uncover and understand consumer emotions in particular parts of the lifestyle, and emotions toward particular types of products, has grown accordingly. But developing techniques for emotional research is a real challenge — getting people to talk is often difficult. They may not want to talk about feelings, on principle (think John Wayne), or they may have a hard time articulating a feeling. They may be perfectly able to identify the emotion, but not want to admit to it, even to themselves.

To get “under the radar” of consumer resistance to talk about emotions, we’ve applied some of the findings in neuroscience about image processing to create a new tool. We created this tool – which we call MindSight® — using images, not words, and timing the exercise so consumers must respond within what we call “the emotional discovery window” that lies between the time it takes for an emotional response to an image to begin to form (roughly 200 milliseconds) and the time it takes for rational reflection and processing to begin – which leads to editing and distortion of those emotional responses (one full second).

Using this tool, we have uncovered some very interesting findings. We recently did some work for a birdseed company, looking at the emotional motivations for using lots of birdseed. What we found was a mix of very expected emotional facts alongside an extremely unexpected but interesting emotional “aha.”

As expected, plenty of bird seed users are through-and-through bird lovers, motivated by a desire to feel a sense of nurturance by taking good care of their feathered friends. But we also uncovered an unexpected (and equally large) segment, motivated by a sense of mastery. For them, feeding the birds is aesthetic, part of taking care of their homes. They wanted attractive birdseed that would draw impressive birds. Cardinals, orioles and finches made a decorative statement about them, just like the color of their home or the style of their landscaping.

In another case, we looked at the emotional reactions that women wanted to create in their social lives. In this work we found two distinct themes in women’s desires: one focused around being perceived as emotionally giving – relationship building and caretaking. The other focused around being emotionally assertive and powerful – communicated by a sense of mastery and achievement. Our big “aha” in this case was that the very same women often wanted to send both of these messages. We learned a bit, I think, about the complexity of emotions facing the challenges of modern-day women.

The work of understanding the complexity of the emotional machinery the drives our behavior is just getting started. We are looking forward to using MindSight® to decode emotional motivation across the full richness of consumer lifestyles.

About the Author: David Forbes holds a Ph.D. in clinical and cognitive psychology from Clark University, and was a member of the faculties of Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry and the Harvard Laboratory of Human Development before beginning his career as a business consultant. He founded Forbes Consulting over 20 years ago as a strategic market research consultancy dedicated to creating business advantage through psychological consumer insights. He has since built Forbes into a major resource for scores of major corporations in the CPG, Financial Services, and Pharmaceuticals industries, domestically and internationally. David is the creator of the MindSight® emotional assessment technologies, a suite of applied neuropsychological methods for understanding consumer emotion and motivation, without the distortions of conscious editing and self presentation. 

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