The quest for research that provides greater insight into consumers can be an engine that drives innovation. Today’s “research renaissance” has been a breeding ground for new and emerging research approaches that promises and provides avenues to new and deeper insights. But sometimes, the hoped for end results and outcomes may not always be fruitful.

Neuro-science is one of the promising new research applications that purports to measure the underlying emotional components of human reactions.

In the 1960’s, teams of scientists lead by psychologist Paul Ekman developed a significant body of knowledge on facial expressions. Their work systematically matched verbal descriptors of emotions to different facial expressions. Ekman eventually was able to calibrate emotional descriptors with gradations of literally thousands of different facial expressions.

Driven by the quest for deeper insights into the human psyche, this emotional template is now being used to measure differences in scanned facial expressions when consumers are asked to respond to alternative communications, concepts, etc.

While quite compelling and interesting, serious concerns are being voiced among leading psychologists and market research professionals over what facial metrics are actually measuring.

  • In a recent HuffPost Healthy Living issue, Sam Sommers’ column What A Pretty Face Can’t Tell You cites a study published by Israeli researchers. Their research studied perceptions of personality based on 60-second exposures to faces. They concluded that face alone is not a reliable window into personality. Body language and situational surroundings in conjunction with facial expression are needed to gauge personality with any consistency.
  • Similarly, Lisa Feldman Barrett, director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, in a recent  NYTimes article, What Faces Can’t Tell Us, challenges the assumption that human facial expressions alone are not universally understood. That challenge is based on several research papers on the issue which suggest that subjects, when asked to freely describe emotions behind faces cannot reliably or consistently do so.
  • Within the market research community, there are parallel concerns over the value of standardized, universal sets of emotional dimensions that may not be especially relevant either to target group/segment emotional drivers or specific communication objectives

The caveat: before implementing this type of emotion research, be sure that the standardized dimensions align with…can directly translate to…business alternatives and strategic objectives.

  • Is the research likely to be acted on or will the glitter fade due to lack of business relevance?  Is this potentially a case of SOB*?

*Shiny Object Blindness