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  • Michelle Niedziela, PhD

The Emotion Paradox in Consumer Research

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This philosophical thought experiment is meant to challenge our concept of observation and perception (Berkeley, 1982). Applying this conundrum to emotional research sparks debate about the limits of consumer testing. As Lisa Feldman Barrett (Barrett, 2006) describes, “People believe that they know an emotion when they see it, and as a consequence assume that emotions are discrete events that can be recognized with some degree of accuracy, but scientists have yet to produce a set of clear and consistent criteria for indicating when an emotion is present and when it is not.”

The last decade has shown a growing interest in the emotional effects of marketing and consumer products. Marketers and product developers are now tasked with proving that advertisements, lotions, shampoos, and packaging are having a desired effect on consumers’ moods. Consumer testing has evolved beyond assessing only liking and product specifications to now being required to assess consumer emotional states using validated measures. One of the reasons for this success is related to the fact that it is widely recognized that the measurement of liking alone fails to predict performance in market. However, a real challenge in the assessment of consumer emotional responses has been the need for validated but also meaningful measures. But this isn’t always so straightforward or simple.

Emotions exert an incredibly powerful force on human behavior. Why exactly do we have emotions and what causes us to have these feelings? Researchers, philosophers, and psychologists have proposed different theories to explain the how and why behind human emotions. At the same time, consumer researchers have grown increasingly interested in measuring beyond self-reported emotions (conscious) from surveys with more implicit approaches from psychology and neuroscience (non-conscious). But if the consumer does not self-report the experience (or the emotional experience is not recognized by the consumer), what does that mean for efficacy? As the nuances and intricacies of emotions unravel, assessments in the industry are deemed more complicated than at first glance.

The general problems in testing consumer emotions sit with 3 main points: operationally defining emotion, validating measures of emotion, and consumer relevant emotional research.

Defining Emotion

Human emotion is a complex, subjective experience consisting of biological and behavioral changes, a series of correlated changes within our thoughts and state of our body, affecting how we feel, behave, and respond to different situations based on past experiences, social context, goals, and desires (Scherer, 2001). Although emotions impact every decision we make and the way we interpret the world around us, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding why we have emotions. Research on emotions continues to explore what causes feelings and how these feelings affect us. As such, defining emotion remains challenging with different theories regarding how and why people experience emotion (Barrett & Russell, 2014).

Physiological theories (such as James-Lange, Cannon-Bard, Schachter-Singer) suggest that responses within the body are responsible for emotions, while neurological theories propose that activity within the brain leads to emotional responses. Cognitive theories, on the other hand, argue that thoughts and other mental activity play an essential role in forming emotions (cognitive appraisal theories). And then, evolutionary theories of emotion postulate that emotions exist to serve an adaptive role (e.g., facial-feedback theory). These examples just skim the surface of differing theories on emotion, alluding to the complexity in defining the topic.

In research, it is crucial to be able to operationally define variables (procedures, actions, or processes) by which they can be observed and measured, specifying how to measure and detect it. The paradox, however, is that it remains unclear if current methodologies accurately detect emotions. For example, while galvanic skin response has been found to be correlated with arousal levels, how much increase in skin conductance is required to identify a state of excitement? Changes in specific muscle groups have been associated with identifying emotions such as joy, but how much change must occur to prove that someone is feeling happy?

Measuring Emotion

Differentiation of emotions based on only one of its identified components (biological, behavioral, cognitive, etc.) does not reflect the complexity of the phenomenon. Any emotional response measured at the subjective level needs to be associated with correlated responses on a cognitive, behavioral, and/or physiological level to be fully considered a true emotional response. Multiple methods of measurement should always be considered for complementary results.

However, this is not always feasible or even meaningful in consumer research. Budgets and time may limit the number or type of methodologies used. Yet, researchers need to consider if the results of the type of methodology used are truly meaningful to the research goal. Does a change in frontal asymmetry activity measured with EEG provide strong enough evidence as action criteria? Each of the different theories of emotion generates different methods for measuring emotional responses. But which one is correct? Validated measures are methods tested to ensure production of reliable, accurate results. But a more important question may be whether the results are truly useful for demonstrating product emotional efficacy and predictive power in market (Niedziela & Ambroze, 2020).

Consumer Relevance

When considering the question of whether something exists if it is not perceived, it is important to note that products are not experienced in a vacuum. Whether experienced on the shelf, in a store, or while using at home, consumers are experiencing all sorts of inputs from packaging and branding to sensory and physical attributes of products, all influencing their perceptions and reactions. Therefore, when measuring emotional response, different elements of the consumer experience must be considered, such as individual differences and generalizability.

The perceptions consumers have of a brand, its values, and its products or services can have a dramatic impact on the consumer experience. Perception is how we view the world around us and can be defined by how we select, organize, and interpret stimuli into a meaningful and coherent picture of the world. Emotional congruence with these perceptions and expectations are key to a cohesive consumer experience and consumer satisfaction.

Perception Can Be Reality

If all aspects of the product experience (from packaging and branding to product attributes) convey a cohesive and harmonized experience, it is possible to drive consumer perceptions. Those perceptions can become reality, driving consumer behaviors and emotional reactions. While it’s difficult to impact the expectations and motives of individual consumers, product developers can alter the physical attributes of the products consumers experience and ultimately drive perceptions and realities.

The emotion paradox is a real problem that neuromarketers must contend with and acknowledge. As consumer emotion research becomes more popular and central to the business decision-making criteria, clients deserve honest answers for questions regarding the validity and meaning of methods and results.


Barrett LF. Solving the emotion paradox: categorization and the experience of emotion. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2006;10(1):20-46.

Barrett, L. F., & Russell, J. A. (Eds.). (2014). The psychological construction of emotion. Guilford Publications.

Berkeley, George, 1685-1753. (1982). A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Niedziela, M. M., & Ambroze, K. (2020). The future of consumer neuroscience in food research. Food Quality and Preference, 104124.

Scherer, K., Schorr, A., & Johnstone, T. (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion theory, methods, research. Oxford University Press.


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