When Neuromarketing Meets Academia: My recent talk at the Society for Affective Science 2017 Boston

This past month I was honored to be invited by Herb Meiselman to speak at the Society for Affective Science meeting in Boston. Herb, David from MMR, and I presented a panel on industry applications of emotional research. Our goal was to engage a predominantly academic crowd focused on the study of emotion in a discussion on how emotional research is being used in consumer science. We had a decent crowd attend our discussion, mostly out of curiosity (unfamiliar with industry research) as well as a healthy dose of skepticism.

Dr. Herb Meiselman speaking about measuring emotions in consumer products.

Herb shared some very interesting points about the differences between academic emotion research and consumer emotion research. For one, academic emotion research focuses on more negative emotional words than are found to be useful in consumer research. Consumer products are mainly designed to delight consumers, therefore traditional academic emotional batteries may not be the best fit for consumer research as many of the words reflect negative emotions (more prevalent in psychological research).

I find this idea particularly interesting on a more theoretical basis. First of all, I find that there is a huge misconception in the industry when it comes to emotion. Most people aren’t aware that a first step in emotion research is to define what is meant by emotion. This is because there is no set definition of emotion. Instead, there are many different theories and many different approaches to defining emotions and emotional response. Neuromarketers rely on defining emotion as a non-cognitive, non-conscious state of feeling resulting in physiological and psychological changes that influence behavior. However, this is not the only definition in academia. Some view emotion as a largely cognitive process. This is because, while emotional responses may seem non-cognitive or without thought, mental processes are still essential, particularly in the interpretation of events.

Neuromarketers follow Kahneman’s theory of decision making, dividing up the decision-making process into System 1 (the non-conscious emotional response) and System 2 (the cognitive rational response), with System 1 being behind consumer decisions. This theory appears closely related to Freudian Theory where the unconscious mind (id and superego) govern over the conscious mind (ego). Neuromarketers believe targeting System 1 (or id) encourages consumer purchase and interest.

Emotions are complex and other theories focus on how to define the emotions themselves. The Basic Emotions approach (Ekman and Plutchik) follows a categorical method for defining emotions, where the 6 basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise) are discrete (not related to one another), measurable, and physiologically distinct (often measured via facial coding). Ekman later added contempt to the basic list to make 7, though this is still under some debate. Plutchik has a slightly different list of eight primary emotions grouped by negative/positive opposition: joy versus sadness; anger versus fear; trust versus disgust; and surprise versus anticipation. So even within a theory, there is some disagreement on definitions.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

Another approach, the Multi-Dimensional Model of Emotion, defines emotions as riding along multiple vectors: positive to negative; arousing to relaxing; motivating to avoiding. In this approach, each emotion is seen as a point (or more like a general area) in a 3-d (or 2-d) space varying on levels of emotional valence (positive/negative), arousal (arousing/relaxing), and motivation (approach/withdrawal). Each emotion consists of a set of components. For example, anger is a combination of negative valence, arousal and motivation, while fear is a combination of negative valence, arousal and avoidance.

Academics are aware of these issues. They know that emotion is complicated and difficult to measure. And they know that in the sphere of decision making and consumption, it only gets more complicated. And they continue to push basic research for better understanding of human emotional response. For example, one talk that I attended at the meeting discussed the role of the vagus nerve in emotion. The vagus nerve is the 10th of 12 cranial nerves (nerves that emerge directly from the brain to the body). It controls and senses physiology relating to the heart, lungs and digestive tract, and it happens to have been the focus of my dissertation! The talk was titled, “Why Should Emotion Researchers Care About the Vagus?” presented by Dr. Julian Thayer from Ohio State University. Researchers (both academic emotional researchers and neuromarketing researchers) should care about the vagus nerve because it controls many things in the body, but in particular, it is involved in physiology directly linked to emotion, including heart rate variability (HRV) and brain response. This is very important for those of us who use HRV and/or EEG and is why I always stress the importance of proper research design and cautious analysis and interpretation of results. As Dr. Thayer reported in his talk, different people can have different physiological responses based on race, gender, physical fitness and even past traumatic experiences. These differences can change our vagal innervations, HR patterns and even cortical thickness. Without taking these things into account or at least understanding them, we risk misinterpreting the data.

The goal of my presentation was to address the skepticism from the academic crowd, specifically around using applied consumer neuroscience to study consumer perception and emotion given these issues (definitions of emotion and confounds of physiology). I wanted these researchers to know that despite the sensationalized headlines they may read about neuromarketing (often misuse of methodologies, over interpretation of results, exaggerated conclusions), many of us in the field are aware of the problems and are doing our best to correct them. We are fighting the good fight but need their help. I encouraged collaboration as well as opposition (for example what was done in this case: https://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2011/10/02/no-you-dont-love-your-iphone-in-that-way). The field of neuromarketing needs a healthy dose of skepticism, but it also needs help and guidance. I called out the great work being done by academic groups, like at Wageningen University, working to tease apart physiological responses to sensory stimuli, and a few of our own case studies.

We must continue to improve our methodologies and be cautious about our interpretations. We can’t read minds and shouldn’t claim to.

But we can offer insight into the consumer experience through intelligent research design.

While we at HCD employ a combination of traditional research (quantitative and qualitative methodologies) with applied consumer neuroscience, we also are some of the loudest critics when it comes to “neuromarketing.” Why? Because we believe in scientific validity in using the right tool for the right question.

Catch me at my next conference! I’ll be at Pangborn as well as Society for Neuroscience this year. Hope to see you around!