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How do we measure emotions? An excursion into the lab!

In the previous article, we listed five superpowers of human emotion that can be of great help to brands and marketers. At Feelin, we help you master these superpowers by directly accessing the emotional response of your target group. Today we’ll have a look behind the scenes and show you how we get our job done!

To start with, remember what’s going on when you are watching a horror movie at home?

When there is something spooky, even though your reason tells you it’s fake, you might still feel afraid and nervous. Your eyelids will tighten, lips will stretch, and your pupil dilation will increase. Your heart starts to beat faster, and you might even start to feel some sweat in your pawn.

Not only does this scenario illustrate the involuntary and unconscious nature of our emotional responses, it is also an excellent example to emphasize the complexity and richness of human emotion. Emotions mean much more than being happy or sad. They are in fact neurological responses to emotional stimuli. These responses create biochemical and electrical reactions in the brain, and these reactions further cause our body to change its physical state.

Okay, emotion seems to be a quite complicated matter, how can we make sense of it?

I. Theoretical Framework: James Russell’s circumplex model of affect (1980)

Though emotional instances are complex phenomena, in fact, they emerge from interactions between more simple mechanisms. In the 1980s, the American psychologist James Russell famously proposed the circumplex model of affect, suggesting that all emotional instances arise from the interaction of two fundamental neurophysiological systems, one related to valence (a positive – negative continuum) and the other to arousal (an activating – calming continuum), as illustrated below:

In other words, valence and arousal are two important and necessary descriptive features of all emotions.

II. How does Feelin come to an accurate picture of viewers’ emotions?

At Feelin, when measuring emotions, we take both neurophysiological systems into consideration.

To address the valence dimension, we detect facial expressions and map them onto six basic universal emotions as defined by Paul Ekman (1972): happiness, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger and fear. In this process, we use facial action coding system (FACS) to label facial movement, such as a certain degree of brow raise, or lip stretch.

The image below illustrates how our tool detects facial expressions at a certain moment. Here the facial expressions are turned into a single label “happiness”.

Measuring viewers’ emotional valence at a certain moment

To address the arousal dimension, we developed our proprietary AI-powered pupillometry to measure viewers’ pupil dilation amount. Pupil dilation proves to be a trustworthy index indicating the intensity of viewers’ emotional responses.

Research shows that following an initial light reflex, pupillary changes are larger when viewing emotionally arousing pictures, regardless of whether these were pleasant or unpleasant (regardless of the emotional valence in other words). Moreover, the amount of pupil dilation also reflects the mental efforts and activities taking place at a certain moment, which are directly related to viewers’ memorization of the information or element shown at that moment. In other words, by identifying emotionally arousing scenes, we are also locating the moments that will be deeply memorized by consumers.

Measuring viewers’ emotional arousal throughout the video

… and the most amazing thing is, with Feelin, measuring emotions is no longer restricted to laboratories, nor is it solely the domain of desktops or laptops. Here with us, all measurements are conducted in “pocket labs” – through front-faced cameras on viewers’ smartphone, which is much less time-consuming and much more mobile and cost-effective.

With this enhanced measurement tool, we are able to provide our clients and partners with sensitive, accurate and clear insights into the emotional impact of their video content. Based on internal benchmark, the performance of your creative content can easily translate into numbers and this will help you confront your video against previous creations, productions by other brands, or even by direct competitors.

Indeed, it’s just perfect in every way! Request a demo and test your own creative content

This article can also be found under a series of blog content created by Feelin Human Emotions in Marketing, where you will discover tons of scientific facts (simply explained and mind-blowing) and explore more practical tips that are easily applicable to your own advertising strategies.


David C. Arch: Pupil Dilation Measures in Consumer Research: Applications and Limitations, NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, 1979: pp. 166-168.

Jonathan Posner, James A Russell, and Bradley S Petersona: The circumplex model of affect: An integrative approach to affective neuroscience, cognitive development, and psychopathology. Dev Psychopathol. 2005; 17(3): pp. 715–734.

Margaret M. Bradley, Laura Miccoli, Miguel A. Escrig, and Peter J. Lang: The pupil as a measure of emotional arousal and autonomic activation. Psychophysiology. 2008 July; 45(4): pp. 602–607.

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