(Authored by Paul Conner, CEO of Emotive Analytics and a speaker at the upcoming MRA Insights & Strategies Conference)

How refreshing it is to see emotions and feelings being understood and accepted as functional drivers of human behavior, including consumer behavior. To be sure, emotions and feelings don’t act alone; they are activated by experiences (a.k.a., "stimuli" or "things that happen to us") and cognitions (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, goals, values, self-images, levels of construal, etc.), and all three (experiences, cognitions, emotions/feelings) work together to explain why we do what we do. However, a primary function of emotions and feelings, and really any affective phenomena, is to provide value to options we are considering and guide us to make decisions that will optimize our well-being. Turner (2000) expressed it very well when he wrote, "To select among alternatives requires some way to assess the relative value of these alternatives, and this ability to assess alternatives is tied to emotions. Emotions give each alternative a value and, thereby, provide a yardstick to judge and select among alternatives."

Once we understand that emotions and feelings naturally (but in most cases, not solely) govern our behavior, we realize that being in the behavior business requires studying them, and doing so effectively. Effective assessment of emotions and feelings requires knowing much about their nature, the full scope of which is beyond this article. However, two of their important characteristics are addressed here:

  1. Emotions and feelings operate in large part nonconsciously. We're often not aware that we're experiencing emotions and feelings or, even if we are aware, we may not be aware of exactly how they're affecting our decisions and behavior.
  2. Feelings are discrete cognitive interpretations of emotional body states. As such, a relatively small number of natural emotional body states (e.g., Panksepp's seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic, play; Panksepp, 2006) can be cognitively interpreted in different ways in different situations, creating a much larger set of discrete feelings (e.g., love, pride, trust, embarrassment, guilt, and regret). Another way of saying this is that similar, if not identical, physiological reactions to environmental stimuli can be interpreted as excitement in one situation, love in another, happiness in another, pride in another, etc.

Two of my favorite emotional dynamics studies illustrate each of these characteristics.

Nonconsciousness. Winkielman et al. (2005) showed that thirsty people who had been subliminally primed with happy faces valued and wanted more of a beverage than thirsty people who had been subliminally primed with angry faces. Furthermore, the two groups had no conscious differences in feelings that would explain their different beverage evaluations and behavior. As the authors stated, these results suggested that "basic affective reactions can be unconscious and interact with incentive motivation to influence assessment of value and behavior toward valenced objects."

Discreteness. Mogilner et al. (2012) showed that people experience happiness as excitement when they are focused on the future and calm when they are focused on the present. Furthermore, experiencing happiness as future-focused excitement or present-focused calm affected the types of products they chose. Future-focused people were more likely to choose "Happiness Water" that promised "pure excitement," while present-focused people were more likely to choose "Happiness Water" that promised "pure calm."

How do we measure that?

To effectively assess consumers' emotions and feelings toward various stimuli of interest (e.g., brands, ads, package designs, etc.), we need techniques that can measure their nonconscious activation as well as techniques that can identify discrete feelings as opposed to more primary emotional states.

Standard surveys can assess discreteness, but not nonconscious activation. Neuroimaging and biometric techniques can measure nonconscious activation, but not a high degree of discreteness. One family of techniques that come from social and cognitive psychology — implicit association measures — can do both.

There are various implicit association techniques available to researchers, the most famous of which is the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald et al., 1998). In addition to the IAT are a collection of priming techniques (for a review, see Gawronski et al., 2014). Priming techniques generally work by quickly and incidentally exposing respondents to stimuli of interest (again, brands, ads, package designs, etc.), then having respondents directly evaluate the emotional value of ambiguous or neutral stimuli. Emotions and feelings that are associated with and activated by the incidental "prime" stimuli influence evaluations of the "target" neutral stimuli in ways that can be quantitatively measured. These measurements are known as "implicit" because they assess implicit (i.e., automatic, uncontrolled, unintentional, nonconscious) associations with stimuli of interest. Furthermore, if explicit emotional associations (i.e., those that come from conscious reflection) and outcome behaviors of interest (e.g., purchases, purchase interest, etc.) are measured in the same study, implicit and explicit emotions and feelings that drive outcomes of interest can be determined. These results can help marketers develop new emotional marketing strategies, particularly sparked by nonconscious emotional drivers provided by the implicit association measurement technique.

There's so much more to say about this.

At the 2015 MRA Insights & Strategies Conference, I'll be discussing and demonstrating such techniques during my session How to Measure Implicit Associations That Influence Consumer Decisions and Behavior. The demonstration will include a way to design and conduct implicit association studies through a"do-it-yourself" approach and I'll spend some time answering questions as well.

If you're looking for fresh emotional marketing insights and don't have the budget, time, or conviction necessary for neuro or bio techniques, implicit measurement techniques are fabulous ways to discover nonconscious discrete emotions and feelings that affect consumer behavior. They're relatively simple, practical, affordable, and strongly based in the psychological behavioral sciences.


  1. Gawronski, B. and De Houwer, J. (2014). Implicit Measures in Social and Personality Psychology. In H. T. Reis, & C. M. Judd (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in social and personality psychology (2nd edition). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. K. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The Implicit Association Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464-1480.
  3. Mogilner, C., Aaker, J., and Kamvar, S.D. (2012). How Happiness Affects Choice. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 39, 429-443.
  4. 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.
  5. Turner, J.H. (2000). On the Origins of Human Emotion: A Sociological Inquiry into the Evolution of Human Affect. Stanford University Press.
  6. Winkielman, P., Berridge, K.C., and Wilbarger, J.L. (2005). Unconscious Affective Reactions to Masked Happy Versus Angry Faces Influence Consumption Behavior and Judgments of Value. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 1, 121-135. DOI: 10.1177/0146167204271309.

Recent developments, including Kahneman's work involving System 1 and System 2 processing, have shown that implicit feelings about brands and marketing strongly influence consumer behavior. But how do you measure that?

Join us as Paul Conner lays the foundation for implicit association measurement techniques and demonstrates how to build them into online surveys during his session at the 2015 Insights & Strategies Conference. During this demonstration, Conner will present IE Pro YOU™, an automated, online implicit association measurement system that companies can use to design and conduct their own implicit studies in "do-it-yourself" fashion. Paul's session, How to Measure Implicit Associations That Influence Consumer Decisions and Behavior, is on Wednesday, June 3, from 3:30 to 4:15 p.m.