Some clichés are so over-used that we tend to lose sight of their meaning. But it really is true that, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and not just because people are too busy to read anymore. Pictures are so valuable because they can tell us as much about the person viewing them as about the content of the image itself. In that sense, they are an especially powerful tool in our quest to understand how people think and feel.

“We are hard-wired to feel what others experience as if it were happening to us,” neuroscientist Marco Lacoboni recently said in reference to the mirror neurons that enable us to reproduce the minute changes in expression and body language that we see in others, and in so doing, feel the same emotions we are observing. Through mental mimicry, human beings develop empathy, and empathy is essential to human connection, whether one-to-one or one-to-millions. It’s what informs great product design and drives relevant, emotionally resonant messaging.

That’s why I’m so thrilled with our development of Emotive ElicitationTM, a new methodology that uses a set of body language images to enlist people’s inherent empathetic abilities as a way to help us better understand their emotions. As you can read about here, we’ve conducted several studies to understand how body language evokes emotions and have reached two exciting conclusions:

  1. Emotions are universal, and so are bodily expressions of emotion. Specific poses do communicate the same basic feeling across gender, age, and culture.
  2. Ambiguous body poses can evoke divergent emotions, which are colored by cultural and personal factors. For example, an image of a person standing out among a crowd will convey positive emotions such as pride or uniqueness in some people, and can evoke negative emotions such as loneliness or fear in others. In that sense the images serve exceptional “ink blots” on which members project their subconscious values and perceptions.

While facial expression capture and analysis is also a valuable technique, in today’s world many emotions are far more nuanced and social than Eckman’s basic expressions of anger, joy, frustration, etc. permit. Many complex emotions, especially social ones such as affection or shame, are very difficult to effectively portray through face alone, and they require context for understanding. For example, a person may be happy because he is relieved of stress or because he was praised for his work. One is a physiological pleasure; the other is a social reward. The difference is extremely important for marketers and advertisers.

Together, Emotive Elicitation and Emotion CentricTM (which asks participants to supply and free associate around six words that express how they feel, while providing a framework for analyzing the data) can generate and help us tell the kinds of stories that are emotionally true and immediately actionable. More than volumes of data and reams of slides, feelings enable us to tell the stories that will not just move you, but help your organization to move. And that, after all, is the point.

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