Emotions, Real & Imagined

Emotion is one of the more interesting things to navigate around. How our emotions influence us—our behaviours, our interactions and our decisions—is significant. At the same time, we have a complex and awkward relationship to emotions, their acceptability and how they are expressed.

Particularly in the workplace, emotions tend to be suppressed and controlled. We endeavour to not show our true feelings and reactions, and to express ourselves in ways that are considered acceptable, appropriate and couched in the right terms. At the same time, as a recent article in the Harvard Business Review points out, emotion—even, and sometimes particularly, extreme emotion—can have a time and place. Letting our true feelings shine through can be particularly effective in setting expectations, creating awareness and communicating intent.

At the same time, how we communicate emotion is influenced by the media we have to work with. Take, for example, our online musings through social media. Given that these are networks of friends (in a possibly broad sense), or at least acquaintances with common interests, we are theoretically able to be more expressive. Yet much of social media is constrained around words, ‘like’ buttons and emoticons. As one commentator pointed out, our broad ability to express emotion interpersonally winds up being constrained, formulaic and stilted. Not much better, really, than our attempt to strike the right note in our professional interactions. Is that actually the case, though?

A really interesting piece of recent research attempted to assess emotions through an analysis of social media, and particularly contributions on Twitter. Taking 10 million tweets as input, they parsed the results to assess the results on a scale of average happiness using linguistic analysis. That input, plus geographic information on where the tweet came from, created an astonishingly detailed map of emotional states across the States. In fact, you can check in daily on relative happiness in a live interactive map. According to the current view, today doesn’t seem to be a great day overall, and Albany, Georgia, is apparently feeling it the worst.

The implications of this are enormous when you stop to think about how social media shapes perceptions, and how perceptions are shaped by social media. ‘Like’ buttons and emoticons are never going to go away, but there are far more fine-grained methods of intuiting emotion. While we might be unconscious of how we express ourselves, and any one tweet might be innocuous or opaque as to our overall emotional state, larger-scale analysis across a larger population results in some likely extremely relevant observations. With a little work, marketers, advertisers, pollsters and politicians could have a massively relevant base of information by which to target messages according to regional mood. In the right context, they might even shape it.

How emotions shape decisions is something that is still not well understood. We are facing a situation where the technology might actually be getting well ahead of the science. Not that the science isn’t trying to catch up. The research mentioned above has already suggested links between happiness and socio-economic status and obesity. The opportunities for further exploration are endless.

Happiness, of course, is only one emotion (although there are many who will argue that it’s a very important one (http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/wellbeing+%26+quality-of-life/journal/10902)). The broader issue is that where others understand our likely or actual emotional state better than we do ourselves, we become open to suggestion and manipulation. Influence the information we are exposed to, and how it is expressed, and you have the opportunity to reinforce or change how we feel. It raises interesting questions for how we express ourselves, how (and where) we communicate and how we maintain and monitor our own personal emotions.

In the meantime, we need to think about what we share, why and how. Not only is our willingness to express ourselves online giving social media organizations the insights needed to shape their marketing messages more effectively. By doing so, we are unwittingly helping them market more effectively to us. The principle of ‘buyer beware’ becomes even more relevant, particularly given that we may not be aware of what we are being sold.

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