Visualising Emotions: Measuring motivations simply, quickly and intuitively

Measuring human motivations and emotions is difficult. Three reasons for this are that

  • Verbal questions tend to rationalize responses
  • Emotional language terms can be very difficult to translate
  • Different cultures have different values

More broadly, emotions are highly contextual and latest theories of emotion, see them as mental constructions in the same way that perceptions are mental constructions based on external cues. Emotions and perceptions are both processed in the same parts of the brain and help us to interpret and adapt to the environment around us, directing us towards our goals (see Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book for more on this).

Human goals are associated with values, motivations and emotions, so let’s define some terms first. Human values are expressed in the long-term goals we have that shape our lives (and are the subject of many cross-cultural studies). Motivations are shorter-term goals that reflect specific “jobs” or tasks that we need to achieve (related to occasions or contexts).

Emotions are short-term (and in many cases fleeting) and reflect our successes or failures in achieving goals that we have in the context of our current environment. For many psychologists and biologists, emotions are tools that our embodied mind uses to adapt our behaviour to the world around us.

Emotions and motivations are unconscious and intuitive (they are felt or experienced more than they are the result of thinking), and although expressed through behaviours they are often unknown to us. The world that is increasingly visual in the way that we communicate and express. Although much has been written about the rise of emojis, arguably language is just one modern expression of more fundamental ways that humans communicate.

Moreover, the use of language in research raises the challenge of translation. Octavio Paz wrote, “I’m not saying a literal translation is impossible, only that it’s not a translation”. He pointed to the fact that while we can usually find some form of words to translate an idea into another language, we can never fully translate the full meaning of that idea from one culture and language to another.

Different cultures and languages have different values and express emotions in different ways, although of course there are universal elements to them. TapestryWorks’ research shows that such cultural differences can be expressed, using a framework of human motivations and archetypes called StoryWorks. The framework has 12 motivational segments, with positive and negative emotions associated with each segment.

The research-on-research study described here used 36 different emotional concepts, 24 positive and 12 negative, balanced across these segments. We asked more than 1,200 women across 4 countries about the beauty they desire for themselves and to choose 3 verbal concepts that best express their feelings about the beauty they desire, and in separate questions to choose the 3 visual concepts than best express their feelings about the beauty they desire. The visual and verbal concepts were designed to match each other.

Choices of verbal concepts were very skewed to one idea. “Confident” (or its translation in Bahasa or Thai), was chosen by 63% of women in Indonesia, 55% in UK, 53% in Australia and 49% in Thailand. Strong was the second most popular choice in all countries except Indonesia (where it didn’t even make the top 5), but chosen by half as many women. Although the top 5 concepts were consistent between Australia and UK, Indonesian and Thai women had different priorities.

Choices of visual concepts were more consistent across countries with the same top 5 concepts, although different cultures had very different priorities, most particularly about the idea of Power (i.e., physical strength). For Australia and UK, the top 2 visual concepts were Powerful and Confident, with Powerful the most popular for Australian women. For Indonesia and Thailand, the top 2 visual concepts were Confident and Hopeful, with Hopeful the most popular in Thailand.

Overall, the visual concepts gave a more rounded picture of women’s beauty goals, and this was reinforced by our findings from a second set of visual concepts that were tested, with a different set tested in each country. In Indonesia and UK, we tested Indonesian images as well as Western ones.

For Indonesian women, the choices of local cultural images slightly changed their priorities, but overall the findings were very consistent with each other. The top 2 verbal concepts for desired beauty were Confident and Charismatic, the top 2 Western visual concepts were Confident and Hopeful, and the top 2 Indonesian visual concepts were Hopeful and then Confident.

Based on previous qualitative work, the difference between charismatic confidence and hopeful confidence in Indonesia is one of special occasions versus everyday beauty. When we asked women about their beauty routines, optimism and hope are important in morning, daytime and evening beauty routines on a daily basis (along with individualism, fun and love), but charismatic and glamorous beauty only become important for formal occasions such as weddings and parties when women want to look their best in their kebaya. [Note that many international beauty brands focus their marketing efforts on glamorous beauty, while local brands focus on everyday beauty, which is why they are killing international brands.]

I said that we tested the Indonesian images in the UK as well as Indonesia, so what did British women make of them? In the UK, the most popular visual concepts were broadly similar, although British women  struggled to “decode” some of the Indonesian images and tended to avoid those that were too culturally specific.  Overall, the choices of visual concepts from both sets were more consistent with each other than with their choices of verbal concepts, with Western images closest to verbal choices.

In our research, we have found that cultural identity is important, especially when visualised with very specific cultural cues (such as a hijab). However, gender identity is more important. Women will not choose pictures of men, even if they are expressing the most appropriate emotion. This should be unsurprising given the topic of female beauty. Ethnic identity is the least important in shaping responses, and with a few exceptions has very little impact on the choices people make.

A comparison of responses based on Western imagery, clearly shows the differences between the four countries. Sophistication which includes Confidence and Courage is more important in Australia and UK. Indonesian women are less interested in Discovery which includes Creativity and Exploration and are more interested in Affiliation (Love and Belonging) and Order (Control and Knowledge) compared with Australia, Thailand and UK.

Based on this research and other work we have now developed a fully multi-cultural image set which have been used across all continents except Antarctica. However, for many studies we develop bespoke stimuli sets which reflect the focus of the research and the identity of the target population (more about self-identity and human values in a coming post).

In summary, this approach can measure human values, motivations and emotions simply, quickly and intuitively. We believe that these topics are best expressed and researched visually with card sorts that take less than a minute in some cases (for example, in an online survey). Simple visual approaches not only make research easy, intuitive and more engaging, they also capture the complexity of our emotional lives and cultural differences better than words.


How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Brand esSense by Neil Gains

[This is an extended written version of my presentation for NewMR on 8 February 2017. You can access recordings and slides here.]

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