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All Emotions Are Not Created Equal

The study of emotions as they drive consumer behavior is still a relatively new focus for market researchers. It seems important at this early point to begin clarifying the various options for this type of research, the various types of phenomena that can be called emotions.



By David Forbes, Ph.D.

Earlier this summer I attended  the Insight Innovation Exchange conference in Philadelphia, where a broad range of market research scientists and professionals gathered to talk about techniques for emotional measurement and emotional research. As I look back on the three-day event, it seems that the most striking feature was the range of diversity in both the methods proposed for studying emotions, and in the types of phenomena under study – all of them called “emotion.”

The study of emotions as they drive consumer behavior is still a relatively new focus for market researchers. It seems important at this early point to begin clarifying the various options for this type of research – the various types of phenomena that can be called “emotions.” In our work, we focus on one particular type of emotional force that I heard very little about at IIEX – the type of emotional force that can pull someone from their armchair at home, move them to their automobile, and get them to a retail store to purchase a particular type of product, hoping for a particular type of outcome from that purchase.  Psychologists typically call this type of  emotional force  “motivation.”

I believe that it’s important that the study of motivation occupy a central role in Market Researchers’ study of emotion – for several reasons.

Firstly, the emotional forces of Motivation are what we should be studying when we seek to uncover new business opportunities in the consumer lifestyle — because motivational drives which are unfulfilled in a consumer’s life represent emotional need states that can be targeted by new product ideas.

Secondly, the emotional forces of Motivation are also what need to be targeted by marketing strategists who wish to have a product story that is arousing and compelling. A new product concept is far more likely to succeed if it offers the promise of emotional benefits that speak to consumer lifestyle aspirations and frustrations. And finally the emotional forces of Motivation should be the target of communication impact for advertisers who want their messages to become a call to action.

Motivations vs. other emotions

Motivations can be distinguished from other types of emotion in part because they derive from forces inside the individual, rather than being primarily “reactive” to outside stimuli. We all carry around inside us two distinct forms of motivational forces. One type consists of aspirations that we have to make our experience of life better – a desire for outcomes which psychology calls “positive reinforcement.” The other type consists of frustrations that we experience in life which, drive us to seek relief – that drive for what psychology calls “negative reinforcement.” In my recent paper in the Review of General Psychology, I’ve attempted to summarize a great deal of research on these motives, developing a unified model that identifies nine distinct types of motivating emotional forces, each of which can be manifest as an aspiration for positive outcomes, or a search for relief from frustration of negative situations.

Clearly the concept of emotion can take several other forms aside from the emotions of motivation. We can study general states of arousal, we can study the various sensory-emotional states activated by experiences in life (like excitement), we can study emotion as a pattern of vascular activity through the technique of brain imaging, we can study physiological expression emotional states as expressed by the facial muscles (like happiness, or disgust). And based on my experience at IIEX, I suspect that all of these types of emotion will continue to play a role in the work of Market Researchers.

I only hope that enough of us decide to focus on the emotions that drive motivation, and seek to understand the aspirations and frustrations that drive consumer choices and actions in life.

Please share...

31 responses to “All Emotions Are Not Created Equal

  1. While I would, as a social psychologist, be the last one to disparage motivation as an interesting topic for market research, let’s add some perspective. We’ve been studying attitude theory leading to behavioral change in earnest since the 1940s, driven by the Yale Group’s work for the government during World War 2. There is significant evidence that image-based advertising, which is not necessarily motivational in intent, can do a lot of good for a brand (Coke? Pepsi? Automotive? Fragrance?). And Ehrenberg presented a compelling case, back in 1974 (JAR), for advertising as reinforcing a decision already made rather than driving a purchase. As shopper marketers know, it’s pretty hard to motivate shoppers to change behavior or to do something different even at the point of decision (I hate the term moment of truth). So I’m not sure motivation is the primary emotion we should be considering.

  2. Hi David, thanks for providing your very interesting perspective.

    I read this piece shared by Lenny on LI, and hastily proceeded to comment the author had not provided enough guidance on how to measure the emotional forces of motivation. In fact, I had not grasped your fundamental premise. On reading it again, it became much clearer. I have attempted to lay out this exchange based on the model you describe above:

    Step 1: I comment on the post on LI, and realize that it was not a well thought out response. Read – there is an element of anxiety (on the continuum of the emotion of fear).

    Step 2. I comment on this blog post to clarify my initial response.

    So, the emotional force of anxiety motivated me to comment on this blog (to reduce the effect of negative reinforcement)? Does that make sense?


  3. interesting that “motivation” is talked of as a “force” Very newtonian as a model of a persons behaviour. I tend to think in terms ofpeoples’ goals and expectations. Emotions need a different language.

  4. The title of the article captured my interest in furthering my understanding of the distinctions among emotions. Instead I found an answer to another question that’s always been in the back of my mind: Who are the people who teach marketers the inner workings of human emotions for the purpose of hijacking them for monetary gain? The problem is how these companies use such powerful knowledge to target children and teens. Hear it from teens themselves at this website:

  5. Hi, David thanks for the the thought provoking post. Some of you may know I’m an active proponent of facial imaging and methods to directly record “emotional response” to marketing stimuli. That, and a lot of other work I’ve done on consumer decision-making leads me to agree with Steve above — MR has done huge amounts of in-depth “motivational” research that has often resulted in some very soft and hard to implement conclusions. An awful lot of consumer decsion-making seems to be triggered by fairly superficial and immediate reactions which are about ‘primary emotional’ reaction to immediate triggers, or simple heuristics to help people shop efficiently.

    But despite that, I am in full agreement with David in that this does not imply we should ignore “emotional motivations”. Our reactions and habits ultimately are embedded in a strata of deeply held motivations and need states (and, as I think David is implying, we use “emotion” too loosely – deeper motivations like “love for family” are not the same as the primary “reaction” emotions like “Happiness”). The problem has been that we have paid too little attention to how, when and why motivations get “executed” in the real world. This to me is the missing bit for the next big MR model — how to link motivational drivers with emotional triggers and social influences. (I wrote an article on this issue a while back “Lets not be Irrational about Emotions” which may interest: )

  6. Hi David,

    Thank you for writing the article and putting your ideas out there.

    You indicate that you believe motivations can be distinguished from “other types of emotions”. Can you provide an example of an emotion that you consider to be non-motivational?


  7. Folks, I apologize for having been off task for a few days during which all of this thought provoking commentary has accumulated. So — from the top:

    Steve – It’s certainly fair to say that advertising can have other meaningful goals aside from motivation – such as, for example, heightening top of mind awareness, or reinforcing decisions already made; but in the end, if our consumer communication goals for any single brand do not include motivation at some juncture , then can we really build business with it? The central importance of motivation in an activity designed to influence behavior is essentially tautologous – no?

    Correlationist — I might put things in slightly different words, while agreeing in essence::

    Step 1: you have an indwelling aspiration to be (and seem) masterful – knowledgeable and wise. This aspiration would also be catalyzed by any ongoing sense of frustration/disappointment about times past when you may have been/seemed less than masterful.(though these may not be immediately at hand)

    Step 2: Energized by these forces, both desire for a sense of mastery as well as fear/loathing regarding the prospect of incompetence – you put digital pen to virtual paper and weigh in – for which I thank you.

    Martin – I’m confident you know that the very roots of the term “motivation” draw from the term for movement – and thus allude to physics and the concepts for force. I think these physical metaphors for psychological processes (themselves of course just metaphors for neurological events) will always be with us.

    Adam – Mea Culpa, though I think as a community we marketers and market researchers would tell you that nothing more sinister is afoot for the vast majority of us other than helping people with very good products persuade consumers to give them a shot. The issue of teen/child advertising is a whole ethical topic unto itself: I for one think it’s a fundamentally questionable activity.

    Alastair – I think its important to recognize that once upon a time the entirety of market research was referred to as “motivational research.” Against that backdrop there is certainly a need to be more precise when we talk about motivation in today’s scientific contexts. We can recall that Newton spent a good deal of time playing with metaphysics as a part of physical science – which does not reduce or dilute the pertinence of physics in the science of today.

    I would agree with you that a major challenge we face together is creating the bigger narrative — integrating immediate emotional triggers (sensations and perceptions) with deeper emotional processes such as motivation, and factoring in social influences (and expressive emotions). This is a fabulous workspace for all of us.

  8. @david First of all, I had to go look up what “tautologous” means. :)) Seondly, Thanks for your incredibly thoughtful responses.

    “creating the bigger narrative —integrating immediate emotional triggers (sensations and perceptions) with deeper emotional processes such as motivation, and factoring in social influences (and expressive emotions).

    How would you do that? Wouldn’t you need to identify the source/base motivation that led to the manifested emotion (based on the stimuli at hand)? Also, aren’t our emotional responses conditioned by our intrinsic motivations? Is there then, a difference between the extent to which marketers can “persuade” for low involvement vs. high-involvement segments?

  9. Wow, I hate to critise an academic, but I seriously drew in breath when I read “The study of emotions as they drive consumer behavior is still a relatively new focus for market researchers.”
    Really? So what – as from a European perspectivce – has qualitative research been doing since say the 1970s? A second comment – tonality counts, and humility helps. Another phrase that jarred: “Firstly, the emotional forces of Motivation are what we should be studying when we seek to uncover new business opportunities in the consumer lifestyle”. Treble question mark. What else does the Author think that major multinationals across sector have been doing for the past eg 20 years? Sorry if the above sounds waspish, but I push back when I sense a suggestion that the MR community hasn’t a clue.. I’m not sure who the “we” is in the narrative above, btw. – it seems the narrative suggests that some of the “we” are more superior than others.

  10. @edward04 thanks for weighing in. I would love to clarify your stance on this : do you agree with the imperative to understand system 1 drivers that influence cognitive bias OR do you have a different model? If yes, have you made changes to questionnaire, trackers, etc. that you can share with us?

  11. Hello David,
    While I did like your paper (and description here) I disagree with a fundamental assumption within the paper. Not sure whether this forum is appropriate, but I disagree with the emergentist view you use as a premise, i.e., that “emergent motivations, like emergent entities in many systems of analysis, cannot be meaningfully reduced to the (biological) substrate from which they emerge, but must be studied and understood in their own right”

    I disagree with exactly the notion that we cannot describe these motivations in terms of biology. Or maybe there is a difference of degree. But fundamentally, I believe that both conscious and unconscious motivations should be seen as fundamentally neuropsychological and thus biological processes. The mental realm is not something “higher and different” than the biological.

    In your paper, you suggest that motivation is emergent but you do not provide an argument for this per se.

    As you know, one of the predominant theories in management and leadership is goal-setting theory, which exactly stresses the overt motivation. But numerous studies in neuropsychology and related disciplines have demonstrated that human choice is often driven by unconscious, non-explicated processes.

    Again, not sure whether this is the right forum, but would love to exchange thoughts here or directly ([email protected])


  12. I encourage researchers to open their minds (and practices) in measuring emotion, and putting their companies into a better position to understand and leverage it. Keep in mind that “emotion” is not merely a research conundrum for advertising, it’s an asset that more and more businesses are being driven toward by economic forces. As David points out, there can be an emotional response to stimuli. Emotion can enhance performance of an ad or product innovation, for sure. And, yes, the British took the “qualitative” lead in consumer insights (thank you BMP). And while emotion or attitudes in some form have been included in primary research for years, it remains the “fuzzy stuff” within corporate conversations. At Motista, we’ve been measuring consumers’ emotional connection to brands across multiple consumer categories for nearly six years running. Our mission is to bring this intelligence into “business.” Clearly, from our model, emotional connection with brands = more profitable behaviors. So, why does business rely more on promotion than emotion? Companies and brands have to incorporate emotion into their measurement, language and activities, every day. That’s how it becomes a strategic advantage.

  13. This is a great example of why behaviorists and empiricists write-off you emotion folk. There is little evidence that says you HAVE to incorporate emotion into your measurement, language, and activities. Just like there is little evidence that “engagement” means anything in most of our purchasing. Show us the studies that say, “here’s how much more sales emotion gets you”, where the comparison is not an emotional appeal. There is lots of evidence from attitude theory research that emotional appeals are not always effective in producing change. Trotting out the occasional example where emotion was important begs the question of how often it was not important.

  14. Again, with apologies to all for belated response, I hope what follows is useful (or at least interesting) to all of you who have commented:
    Aaron, I think we could (and perhaps one day will) develop a comprehensive typology of emotions. I will be talking at TMRE about one type of emotions that I distinguish from Motivation — an emotion type that I call “Sensory-Experiential Emotions” These are feeling states that arise REACTIVELY, as a result of sensations and perceptions that are stimulated by events that occur around us (e.g., On my way to work a prankster friend of mine comes up behind me and yells “BOO!” — I feel a mix of emotions that probably include surprise, amusement, and perhaps even a moment of slight fear.) If emotional motivations are the driving forces behind the choices we make in our lives, I think that sensory-experiential emotions are the building blocks of our everyday emotional experience of living

    Correlationist, a boy can dream – no? Seriously, I think the energy is building around the study of emotion from several fronts, and I would hope that we can begin to see integrated analyses in this research area emerging. We have recently been showing our clients an integration of data about emotional motivation and sensory/emotional experience, in the form of profiles of aspirations and frustrations that motivate consumers in a certain category, combined with sensory/emotional portraits of what the experience of satisfaction feels like when the consumer gets it. Clearly lots more to do in this workspace.

    Edward04, Sorry if I seemed to be historically amnesic in my narrative (we know indeed that those ignorant of it are bound to repeat it) I think that market researchers have been TRYING to study motivation for a good long time (indeed in the beginning I think Market Research was actually called “motivational research.”). I think we have here to fore been hampered by the limitations of respondents being only able to tell us what they THINK they feel. We appear to be moving toward an era where we begin to have the ability to get beyond (or beneath) respondents words – using neuroscience directly, or leveraging neuroscientific findings to develop other methods that tap unconscious or preconscious feelings. My comments were directed more at practitioners of these new methodologies for study of emotions — many of whom seem to focus on emotional phenomena other than motivation while still claiming that they can uncover how “motivating” a particular piece of marketing communication might be. As to my seeming suggestion that “some of the “we” are superior to others – I am afraid I stand by it. Ask your clients why they choose to work with you instead of a competitor – I expect the answer you get will involve a similar value judgment!

    Mr. Ramsey, I think we are talking about the pesky mind/body problem here – and the discussions of reductionism that inevitably arise around this problem. I content myself with thinking of neurological and phenomenological phenomena as different “levels of analysis” – both of which can prove valuable in application. As far as the big T truth of all this goes, I am not sure that this is a solvable issue – nor that it ultimately needs to be. I’d love to talk more about this but agree this may not be the venue. Reach me at [email protected]

  15. Steve, we’re a venture funded company that’s invested heavily over 5 1/2 years to develop and apply validated metrics of emotional connection. We’ve been working with F1000 companies over multiple years and have aggregated a volume of evidence (statistical and empirical) that confirms that emotionally connected customers are much more valuable than those, for example, who are merely “satisfied.” You might conclude that emotion is the #1 explanation of why someone spends 4X for a cup of coffee or 3X for a car vs. the “functional” alternative. Empirical evidence is everywhere. As you might pick-up here, we’re more focused on helping companies build connection to the emotions that most motivate their consumers. This is a good thing, which simply advances the essential consumer-centric marketing approach declared by Drucker a few decades back. We’ve helped make emotion less elusive and more actionable for our clients, and we intend to continue advancing the ball with companies that embrace emotional connection marketing. The challenge is more than adding “lift” to a single execution, but to build more meaningful connections with customers over time and across the entire consumer journey (which, as we know, has dramatically evolved). As David suggests, I have no question that if you submitted 100 consumers who are emotionally connected to the same stimuli vs. those who are not, that the emotionally connected group would be more valuable to your client. Leveraging that emotion at POS execution, for example, would be even better. Now, emotional connection can be measured, compared, applied and seen in business outcomes thanks to companies like Motista and Forbes. And a growing number of companies seek to better leverage it. While emotion or attitudes have surely been included in brand trackers over time, we provide an objective, validated taxonomy of emotions that matter in specific categories. The value of building emotion is most clear when looking at what Apple does and gets (premium margins, leading market cap), but they have been able to do it intuitively and culturally. Most companies need a form of data and intelligence to make it a tangible discipline.

  16. Nice sales pitch, Alan, and a nice mention of one of my favorite indicators of really good science – venture capitalists are interested in funding it. You would think that somebody would have published a study in a refereed journal that shows that emotionally connected customers (I’ll settle for engaged) are more valuable to a company or that the actions needed to connect these customers provides a better profit base; this seems to me a relatively elementary tenet. And yet…I don’t find anything. I might conclude that drinking Starbucks is purely an image thing and that living in certain neighborhoods everyone drives a Lexus so I do to – conformity is not an emotion. Or I might need wi-fi and given a Starbucks on every corner, it’s worth the price. Not everything is emotional and not every business needs (your term) an emotional connection.

  17. Steve, “ouch” on the VC comment. I assure you, some are very smart and impressive business people. Regardless, we’ve continued to invest, grow and gain traction with demanding clients who require better intelligence to apply emotion connection to their brands. To be clear, we never claim that emotion is everything. But our own data and 3rd party studies have shown that it’s often the #1 thing explaining business outcomes like market cap or customer value. Companies can surely compete on convenience and value. We see companies following efficiency models–like Walmart–grow and succeed. Someone might be more motivated to indulge at Five Guys, but McDonald’s is up ahead. Convenience, in this case, saves me time and money and gets the sale. But if there were a Five Guys a few blocks up, I’d be paying more to enjoy their burger and fries. (Personally, I love Dunkin’ Donuts which I grew up with in Boston, but they’re not in CA. I always get a DD’s at the airport when I fly east, but won’t fly east just for their coffee and chocolate frosted donuts.) When we talk about emotional connection with our clients, we’re really talking more about what motivates people in their lives…and whether people “connect” brands to their desires and aspirations. Sure, conformity is one way to explain why I rationalize a Lexus. But social belonging and looking successful are powerful motivators. By the way, in our model, we don’t separate the product or experience from the emotion. If hanging out at a Starbucks refreshes me and makes me a better person, then I’m not just paying for a cup of coffee. I’m paying for something else…which has value to me. Anyway, it’s getting late. Thank you for the stimulating dialogue. And, thank you David for keeping the subject on the air.

  18. Can you send us a reference to anything published that says emotional connection = better market cap or customer value? I’d love to see something that says emotional connections do this. I would have thought (because I listen to Cramer more than I should) that solid management and product demand are the primary drivers of market cap. I’m not denying the role emotion CAN play, but when you insist it MUST play a key role, I think you’re off base. And for me, it’s Northeast Dunkin’ jelly donuts – much better than our version down south.

  19. @steve how about this example……

    You go to the grocery store to buy batteries (low involvement, commodity), and you have two choices

    1. Energizer
    2. Duracell

    The packaging on Duracell has a pink ribbon announcing a certain portion of each sale is going to benefit beast cancer research. The Energizer brand package does not have any such call outs. Guess which I one I bought? Do you still think emotions are not one of most discriminating determinants of behavior?

  20. @correlationist – I’m not saying, nor have I said, that emotions cannot drive behavior – of course they can. I’m saying they are not always the motivator and I’m saying they don’t need to be present to motivate behavior.

  21. @steve I dont think anyone will argue the total dominance of emotion over rationale in decision making and behavior (although many say Sys 1 predominates, and I tend to agree)- they work simultaneously. However, if you want to change behavior, emotional cues stand a better chance than functional benefits, even in toothpastes ( i think). I would love to know what you think are the major determinants of behavior.

  22. Wouldn’t touch that question with a 10-foot pole. I’m betting every category is different. And I’m still waiting to see some actual scientific research, as opposed to opinion and conjecture, that emotional cues are better than functional benefits. I think this is way too general a statement. I’m sure there are examples on each side, which is my point – it’s not always emotion or motivation as emotion that drives behavior or behavior change.

  23. My dentist told me to use Crest, which had flouride, unlike all the others; they did not all have the same functional benefits. Pepsodent would have gotten me kissed more (according to the ads, but I was only four at the time and underwhelmed by that benefit).

  24. Nice, your vast knowledge is aptly complemented by your wit. Did your doctor recommend a specific brand? If yes, what if another brand (in the same comp set) with a slightly better taste came along? I may be mistaken but doesn’t taste link to emotions (for example, associating certain foods with certain places/memories) ?

  25. Yes, my dentist did and my current brand is good enough (satisfices?). Lobster brings back great memories, toothpaste not so much 🙂 I’d tell you what memories it brings back but this is a family discussion.

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