One of the more interesting sessions here at the ESOMAR Congress was one titled, "Measuring Emotions." The Europeans have been into this for some time and I was curious to get a better sense of what is all about. Much of it revolves around a field called cognitive neuroscience which essentially is about how our minds work and the physical manifestations of mental activities of all kinds. For example, when we are nervous our hearts beat fast and our hands sweat. You can find a pretty good summary of the field and its potential implications for MR in a paper from last year's Congress. Most of the applications to date have been around advertising and branding.
A lot of the early thinking around neuroscience was a bit impractical because it often talked about measuring physical changes in the brain or skin. A somewhat more practical application involves a form of eye tracking in which emotional reactions such as pupil dilation, movement, or rate of blinking can be measured in a qualitative type setting.
Measurement issues aside for the moment, it strikes me that there is a potential paradigm shift here. Most survey research involves us asking people about how they feel, what their intentions are, and what they recall from previous events. But the neuroscience argument is that only a small fraction of this information is available in the respondent's conscious mind, and even then they may have great difficulty expressing it because of verbal overshadowing in which our attempts to describe an emotion or event actually end up changing our perception of it.
But back to measurement. One interesting line of research argues that the best way to capture respondent emotions is via metaphor. In practical terms this seems to mean having respondents choose their responses from among a set of images that unambiguously represent a range of emotions. The Web is, of course, the ideal way to do this.
Cool stuff. Just how well these issues can be thought through and implemented remains to be seen, but there are researchers out there doing this kind of work for real companies and those companies are actively using the results in their businesses. As noted above, much of this work has been around branding and advertising, but if it works there it can work elsewhere.