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Emotion measurement – learning from our ancestors

The best way to identify how someone is feeling is to read their face. Humans do it automatically, often subconsciously. Facial expression analysis has become an invaluable tool to companies wanting to identify how their customers really feel about them and their brands.

We know from facial expression pioneer Paul Ekman that the basic emotions are universal. Regardless whether it’s somebody living in a modern city or a tribesperson in a remote area, universal emotions can be easily recognised by looking at facial features such as the position of the eyebrows or the corners of the lips.

A study by the University of Glasgow found last year that there are four emotions that appear to be biologically hard wired in people:
β€’ Happiness
β€’ Sadness
β€’ Fear / Surprise
β€’ Anger / Disgust

Why are fear and surprise grouped together? Because their facial reactions start off the same - with wide open eyes - but then layer other facial muscle movements on top. Similarly anger and disgust start off with a wrinkled nose before morphing into more distinct facial expressions.

When faced with an unknown threat, it makes biological sense to open eyes wide to take in as much visual information as possible. Then (milliseconds) later social information is layered on top – communicating to others in the group the nature of the threat – is it just a surprise or something to be fearful of?

Those four hard wired, biological emotions helped our ancestors survive and are basic reactions we can still read in the faces of modern consumers today. Over centuries of social development our emotional spectrum has then become more and more complex – developing reactions suitable for different situations. Modern brand measurement tools often include over 30 different emotional reactions.

Facial expression analysis is one of the most reliable measures of emotional reactions and can help us understand consumer behaviour to a much higher degree than self-reported answers alone. So in one respect modern consumers and cavepeople are alike – their faces disclose their emotional reactions.

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