Steve McGrath, July 2015
Why do we clench our fists when we’re angry but struggle to get out of bed when we’re depressed? Why do we tingle all over when we’re happy or in love? And do these bodily sensations actually help us figure out what we’re feeling?
Scientists are still working all that out, but a novel experiment from Finland may give us some clues. Researchers asked people from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan to think about emotions they’ve experienced and, on a screen, “paint” the areas of the body that feel stimulated (hot colors) and deactivated (cool colors) during those times [try it]. When combined, the bodily sensation maps look like this:
Note how turned on the happy person is, how the loving person is glowing, and the depressed person is feeling, well, blue.
“Even though we are often consciously aware of our current emotional state, such as anger or happiness, the mechanisms giving rise to these subjective sensations have remained unresolved,” says the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. “Here we used a topographical self-report tool to reveal that different emotional states are associated with topographically distinct and culturally universal bodily sensations; these sensations could underlie our conscious emotional experiences. Monitoring the topography of emotion-triggered bodily sensations brings forth a unique tool for emotion research and could even provide a biomarker for emotional disorders.”
Why we care
Although bodily sensation maps may never drive marketing decisions, we at Brodeur are deeply interested in the interplay of physical sensations and emotions. That’s because it profoundly affects whether people, things or ideas are relevant. Relevance breeds action, which is important to marketers, leaders and causes.
Relevance often starts with the sensory: Think of the first time you touched a smart phone, fell in love with it and bought one for yourself. Or when a candidate’s warm handshake, as much as her policy, won your vote. Or when you hugged a sick friend, yearned to help, and found yourself donating more than you planned to find a cure.
Our research uncovers sensory keys to consumer decision-making. In hotels, for instance, water pressure in the shower drives more conversation than bed comfort by a ratio of 2 to 1. Room noise is a hot topic, and breakfast offerings matter a lot more than lunch or dinner.
Can senses affect business-to-business purchase decisions? We think so. If you’re a chief information officer looking at storage solutions for your company, hard return on investment is certainly important. But won’t you also gravitate toward a vendor who will keep your data center tidy, give you the sweetest-looking-and-feeling user interface, and convince you your head will hit the pillow at night without a worry-induced stomach ache? These are sensory concerns.
As we’ve mentioned before, logic is just a small part of what prompts meaningful behavior. Sensations, emotions, values and social impulses quite often trump it.