How facial coding unlocks consumer intentions

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Editor's Note: The following is a selection of excerpts from "On-Emotion: Salvaging Market Research" by Dan Hill, president of Sensory Logic. Dan Hill will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming iMedia Brand Summit.

Selected excerpts:

  • Page 20: "The Risk of Lip Service"
  • Page 32: "The Unconnected Dial"
  • Page 39: "The Intellectual Alibi: Giving the Safe, Smart Answer"
  • Page 60: "The Scientific Options for Accessing Emotions"
  • Page 240: "Up Against Experts and Users"

Page 20: "The Risk of Lip Service"

How do people, including test subjects, really communicate? They spin, deflect, hint or hold back. A UCLA professor has documented this tendency. In what Albert Mehrabian calls "ambiguous situations," he estimates that 55% of what is really being communicated comes through the face, another 38% from the voice, and only 7% from the words. A research setting in which you are being paid money to give an opinion to an unfamiliar focus group moderator or as part of an anonymous online survey is certainly an ambiguous situation.

From Mehrabian's research, I conclude that at a nearly eight (face) to one (words) ratio (55% versus 7%), facial coding results are clearly more valuable.

It isn't surprising then that facial coding's gold standard, Dr. Paul Ekman, finds that only one profession in America is above chance at picking out liars. Is that profession focus group moderators or market researchers? No. Instead, the right answer is the Secret Service agents who protect the president. That makes sense, because in protecting the president you're vastly outnumbered and unable to have a conversation with the crowd.

So what do the agents do? They rely on reading non-verbal signals, as acknowledged in the recent bestseller Mrs. Kennedy and Me. In that book, the author Clint Hill, (yes, a distant relative) talks about how on the fateful day on which the book's story hinges, he tried to jump into the back of the limousine to save John Kennedy. Until that moment, Clint was doing what he always did: scanning the crowd, looking for anybody with anger in the eyes and a hand going toward a gun in the pocket. The tragedy couldn't be avoided because Lee Harvey Oswald was out of Agency Hill's sight lines, being perched high in a window above the parade route in Dallas.

Just as the Secret Service uses facial coding to guard against those with malicious intent, so can researchers guard against qualitative participants giving lip service. An aspect of facial coding that can be of decisive help in these cases is miro-expressions. That term refers to those instances when an emotion flits across the face in 1/5th of a second or less.

Why so short? An important reason that impacts the accuracy of market research is that from an evolutionary point of view, we know as a species that giving negative feedback runs the risk of insulting the other party and, therefore, spurring a fight. In daily life, a fight -- at minimum -- depletes energy; in the extreme, it could result in anything from physical injury to death. As a result, especially in delivering "bad news "people may unknowingly flash a micro-expression that reveals their real reaction, before trying to adopt a "poker face" so as not to give offense.

In a pair of projects for a U.S. appliance manufacturer, for instance, Sensory Logic found major discrepancies between what people said and how they felt (Fig. 1.1). Only 74% of participants who said they were positive toward a product design actually proved to be emotionally positive once we facially coded their verbal responses. Of those who said they were neutral, 19% were positive and the rest predominantly negative -- a sign that "maybe" is usually a dodge, a polite way of avoiding "no."

Put another way, what we found here was that only 3/4th of the time did "yes" really mean "yes." But the biggest, misleading discrepancy that could ruin a study's accuracy is that 4/5th of the neutral "maybe" responses were actually "no" reactions, similar to when somebody says, "Sure, I'll be at the party," then doesn't show.

In business as in life, only those who really care about you -- and the outcome -- will tell you the truth. Everyone else may just slap you on the back and say, "It looks good to me."

 

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