Dan Hill is the founder and president of Sensory Logic, Inc., a scientific, research-based consultancy that specializes in psycho-physiological consumer insight testing and sensory-emotional branding. The company was inspired by breakthroughs in brain science that challenge traditional ideas of how to understand and measure people's decision-making process. Following publication of his book, Body of Truth: Leveraging What Consumers Can't or Won't Say (John Wiley & Sons, 2003), Dan was featured in Business 2.0, on NPR's Marketplace, and quoted in the New York Times.
Dan's second book, Emotionomics: Winning Hearts and Minds, published by Beaver's Pond Press, was released in September 2007. It will be re-released internationally by Kogan Page, the leading independent British business publisher, in October of 2008. Since the release of Emotionomics, Dan has received extensive media coverage, including CNN, Fox, ABC, the Wall Street Journal, and AdAge, among other outlets.
[Bio from the Thought Leaders website, currently under construction.—CM]
tompeters.com asks …
Dan, what is Emotionomics?
DH: It’s a book about the importance of emotions in business. I think we’ve all known that they were important, but there hasn’t been a way to strategically model them, or quantify them. My book is about doing both.
Mostly through facial coding?
DH: Yes. Charles Darwin was the first scientist to take emotions seriously. He figured that if they were not important to us, to our survival, even in business, they would have been weaned out of us as a species. Darwin went on to realize that you reflect and communicate your emotions on your face. It is the par excellence way to do it, as noted by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. Understanding this allows you to create a method of coding to understand how people are emoting, how they’re buying in to products and services, brands, brand experiences, all of that.
Why is this news now? We’ve all been facial coding our whole lives, haven’t we?
DH: People do innately code. But what we’ve done as a business practice, and what I’m showcasing in the book, is to make this into a repeatable business methodology. Although it’s something we do on a more casual, intuitive basis, I’ve found a way to put numbers behind it. We all know there are business executives who need to see process and numbers, because they’re financially driven. This is a chance to take that seemingly soft, squishy thing called emotions, and be able to hard-case it based on scientific methodology, and come back with quantifiable deliverables.
You point out that we make all our decisions emotionally, but then we justify them rationally. So, we may give a reason for buying or doing something, but in reality, the reason we’re giving is not the actual motivation behind the decision.
DH: Rapaille called it “the intellectual alibi.” I think we all know this. People form a gut impression, and that gut impression is not mutable, but they find a way to describe it that’s socially acceptable in the moment. How do people communicate? They spin, deflect, hint, and hold back. This method I’m describing in the book is a chance to go right to the gut and know how they’re emotionally tying in.
Is there an evolutionary reason for operating that way?
DH: First and foremost, you have to realize that people aren’t necessarily honest, even to themselves. Probably the biggest lies we tell are to ourselves. From a survival point of view, we want resources, we want to feel good about ourselves, we want to keep up our own sense of morale, and we want allies. So we tend to say the nice things, the soft things. But in the moment of purchase, of a branded offer, what you really want to know is, are they going to go through with it? Are they pulling away? Are they sitting on the fence?
From an evolutionary point of view, we’re all facial coders. There’s a part of the brain that reads other people’s faces. But verbally we tend to suppress and hold back. There’s a need and an advantage, in business, to get around that and get a more accurate read as to how your target audience is going to respond.
How do you do that? You get people in a room and look at their faces?
DH: We don’t at present test using focus groups, although we are looking at the possibility in the future of videotaping those sessions. The reason we haven’t yet is that the strongest stimulus in any room is going to be your fellow human beings, the people who are part of the focus group, as well as the moderator. There is something inherently awkward about focus groups. No one goes shopping with 12 strangers. The idea that you’re going to be verbally and emotionally open to those people is very much suspect.
The New York Times reported one of my favorite stories. A focus group in Atlanta consisted of a group of balding men. The men were asked whether or not balding bothered them. To a person in the focus group, everyone said, “No, it does not.” But one of them was wearing a hat indoors in Atlanta in the summertime. That’s what I call the “say-do gap.” What we say and what we do are very often different things.
I assume your clients ask you to use facial coding to judge what kind of response either a print campaign or a commercial generates in people. How do you do this?
DH: Well, there are broad applications for facial. It can be applied to the nature of an offer you’re constructing, an experience for someone, or certainly for advertising products. Design has become very important. The way we observe people’s faces in reaction to the design can vary from capturing video with cameras that are hidden in stores or having a web cam on a laptop computer in front of the subject. They’re given a series of questions and their responses are captured in video files.
We review the responses on a very granular basis, potentially down to one thirtieth of a second. There is a system set up by Paul Ekman, who’s like the modern Charles Darwin. Over the course of a decade, he systematically figured out which muscles in the face correspond to which emotions. We hired him as a consultant and developed a scoring system of norms, which Ekman had never done, as he never intended to take it to scale. We then apply that scoring system to the recorded responses. We review the video files manually to know how people are emoting and come back with quantifiable deliverables.
All that is done by people?
DH: It is at present done by people. We use people who have to be, obviously, conscientious, but also quite empathetic and visually-oriented. We are good at it. We’ve done work for the government. They have screened our work and found a very high level of accuracy.
Furthermore, going forward, we have signed a contract with a company that is automating facial coding for the U.S. government for security purposes. We expect that within three years we will be automating the system, but it will still be supplemented by manual checks and input.
Meaning that, if we’re not already, we’re soon all going to be caught on video passing through airports and some algorithm is going to determine our emotions and motivations.
Does it work if we’re not being asked any questions? Is there value in just looking at a face to see what’s going on with it?
DH: Oh absolutely. We’re not going to practice our work in the security field but the CIA and FBI have already been using this technology for years. I know this because I was in China, talking to someone at the Great Wall. He asked what I do. I said, “I do market research.” The guy looked incredibly bored—I know that because I read faces. [Laughter] I said, “It’s a bit different, I read faces.” He said, “Oh really? Micro-expressions?” I said, “Yes. How do you know that term?” It refers to a very brief expression that will typically last one-fifth of a second or less. It turned out the guy works for Halliburton in the Middle East. And if you think the CIA and Halliburton don’t know one another, you haven’t been reading the newspapers. [Laughter]
He knew the ins and outs, and that they use it for surveillance and interrogation purposes. We’re not doing it for that purpose, but just as a country wants to have greater security, a company wants to have greater security in knowing that it’s spending its resources correctly.
With the current state of the economy, companies want a more intimate understanding of the consumer than perhaps the consumer is prepared to verbalize, or even know consciously. We take in about 11 million bytes of information a second as human beings. Ten million of those are visual. That’s why my training is in the visual arts. We consciously process no more than 40 bytes per second. Do the math. It means that less than one percent of our thought activity is fully conscious. That’s why it’s so important to get to the intuitive, visceral, emotional connection.
We’ve been talking about the customer, but what value does this have for a company internally?
DH: We did a project with a large company in Texas. The CEO knew that he needed to have the company personnel behind him for a new branding position as they’re the brand ambassadors. There was a suspicion that what he had in mind wasn’t credible to the employee ranks. We did the test and the instincts of people around the CEO proved to be correct, that what he proposed wasn’t going to be the best way to go forward. I have to give the guy a lot of credit, first for willingly subjecting his branding position to the test, and secondly, accepting the results and making the adjustment.
Other examples of using this internally include looking at employees during the extreme emotional cauldron of mergers and acquisitions, or reorganizations, to see how they’re fairing. You can look at morale, hiring decisions. We’re about to do an article for USA Today, looking at CEOs and their personalities. Their personalities drive corporate culture which drives stock performance.
What do you look for when examining the facial and body language of a CEO? Do people who request this service tell you what they’re looking for in a leader?
DH: The work we’ve done for executives so far has involved how they come across to their audiences, be it employee ranks for annual meetings, investors, or the press. It could go further and, although we haven’t been asked to do this, one could certainly look at hiring situations and determine if a personality type would fit in an existing corporate culture.
Personality traits are emotional patterns that are shown over time. We call someone a “hothead”, for instance, because they show anger repeatedly. So you can look at the emotional profile and find the typical patterns for emoting. We were doing some work for an investment firm that felt their CEO was probably on the way out because the person wasn’t making a good connection with any of those key audiences. What we saw when examining the CEO in action was a disconcerting combination of fear and contempt. Both are emotions that cause you to be isolated from the people you’re trying to connect with. While I can accept anger to some extent, because anger could mean assertiveness, contempt means you’re dismissing people, disrespecting them. They will pick that up, and it’s hard for a CEO to take in necessary information if he or she has been cutting people off.
You also say that it’s difficult for us to disguise how we feel. Apparently the face is the only place on our body where the muscles are attached right to the skin?
DH: That’s correct. Our reactions are very quick, very intuitive. Our ability to strongly change how we emote, our patterns of reaction may be limited.
On the other hand, we’re also examining the presidential candidates. They know that they’re under constant observation and there are certain candidates who have done a fairly good job of trying to ameliorate some of their negative tendencies.
I think all of us can innately tell a social smile from a true smile. A child as young as the age of two can already fake the social smile. So can a person in a focus group. The difference is that a true smile involves relaxing of the muscle around the eye. That’s why you get the twinkle in the eye. A social smile will sometimes stay on the face for too long, or it will come on or drop off very abruptly, which are signs that it’s not a natural smile. Less than ten percent of the public can fake a true smile. Woody Allen can do it. But hey, he’s talented and—
He’s had a lot of practice.
Tell me about your work involving watching TV poker games.
DH: Of course I could. Well, I’ll back that up slightly. There were five poker players. These are people who routinely play for money, not occasional players. I could pick up the tells of four of the five players before the evening was out, which means that I would very happily meet with them on another occasion and play against them. [Laughter] The other individual had a very neutral face. He’d be tough to play against.
Isn’t it wrong that some of these guys and gals playing poker on TV wear sunglasses?
DH: Oh sure, they do everything they can. They’ve got the cap pulled on, the sunglasses.
That just seems so wrong to me. Isn’t being able to read your opponent’s face, or trying to control your own face, part of the game?
DH: It’s amazing to me that they would actually allow that. I think it is an innate part of the experience to try to read your opponent. Everyone should be exposed and trying to do the best they can to maintain that famous poker face.
Do you play poker regularly?
DH: I have played poker in the past. As you might guess, I don’t get invited to play.
Well, you’re going to have to go in disguise from now on.
Instead of saying the customer is king, I noticed that you corrected yourself and said, “The customer is queen,” because women make most purchases. I’d like to think that you picked that up from Tom Peters. Speaking of gender, are women better able to code faces than men?
DH: Well, first of all, I’m left-handed and I’m happy to report that there is data to show that left-handed men tend to be more sensitive emotionally. [Laughter]
DH: So I may have a slight neurological advantage there. In my case, I also lived in Italy for two years as a boy, and I went to first grade in an Italian fishing village. I didn’t know the language at first; I had to rely on non-verbal cues. Of course, Italians use them a wee bit more than Norwegian Americans like myself.
First of all, women do tend to emote more than men. There is more of a premium placed on their emotional literacy. I do believe that if you tracked, you’d probably find that women are innately better facial coders. However, my lead facial coder is male. He’s a sculptor by background, so he’s very visually oriented and he’s gifted at reading emotions from sculpting the human face.
In terms of the reactions of consumers, it’s very interesting. We’ve done some studies comparing men and women. Women tend to give higher, more flattering verbal assessments. But emotionally, they actually prove to be tougher customers; it’s harder to sell them. Guys give an easier, softer read emotionally, even if they’re a bit tougher verbally.
I think it makes sense because women are very discriminating buyers. They tend to be careful and conscientious about how they shop. There are lots of studies that show that men basically shop as if it’s a search and destroy mission. They are in the store and back out as fast as they can possibly finish the experience. Women, when shopping with other women, or by themselves, will take much more time shopping than if they’re accompanied by a male companion.
And they tend to compare and contrast more. Our Cool Friend Marti Barletta says that they gather a lot more information about a product than a man does.
DH: I think so. There’s a wonderful opening stanza in a poem by Wallace Stevens,
I am what is around me.
Women understand this.
One is not duchess
A hundred yards from a carriage.
(“Theory,” Collected Poetry and Prose, isbn 1883011450)
I think it’s very important. One of the fundamental disconnects in business is that very often you have male executives and male creative directors creating things for an audience that very often is dominated by female shoppers.
Right. And we know that Tom Peters is doing his best to try to change that. Yet it seems to be happening very slowly.
DH: It will go on forever. [Laughter] If all the CEOs were women, I suspect that emotions would have been front and center a lot earlier than now. But it is what it is. We’re seeing an increased awareness. You have Jack Welch using the phrase “Straight from the gut.” You can use the face to, in fact, read the gut to know how people are emotionally buying in. We now know the science behind it and we have a methodology for reading it that’s repeatable and actionable.
The success of Dan Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, indicates that we’re beginning to understand that we need a lot more than just the rational, left side of the brain operating. It seems that there is some kind of shift in this mentality in a broad sense.
DH: Oh, absolutely. Let’s look at Tom Peters’ comment about the fact that a factory is opening in China every 20 minutes. Welcome to the age of commoditization. Only one company per category can provide the lowest price point. To succeed at the other end of the spectrum, to have premium pricing and loyalty—which, by the way, is an emotional construct—you don’t want to fight with one hand behind your back. To say you’re going to approach it from a rational point of view is crazy, because companies, despite lawyers, are going to be able to duplicate somebody else’s product over time.
What you can’t simulate nearly as easily is the successful emotional connection. That is, after all, the ultimate form of customization. It means that you have allowed the buyer’s emotions to color and frame what your offer is about. Value is decided emotionally. A company can make a series of claims for their product and a rival could make the same series of claims. The real question is, from an emotional point of view, which ones are relevant and credible enough to close the deal?
You have a blog, Face of the Week. It appears that Face of the Week interprets the facial expressions of people in the media spotlight.
DH: Yes, you can apply this to the faux pas of celebrities. I was on CNN and Fox and MSNBC looking at O.J. Simpson who has maybe not a death wish, but certainly a jail wish. I’ve been looking at Drew Peterson, who’s a pretty chilly character.
I looked at Paris Hilton when she was interviewed by Larry King. She said, because her publicist probably told her to say this, “I’m now going to be a good girl.” But when I reviewed the videotape, for two frames—that’s less than one-tenth of a second—she showed a profound look of disgust on her face. And I think her subsequent behavior has clearly shown that that was a statement she made for prime time that had no bearing on how she was going to live her life. Her face betrayed the fact that she was not going to stand behind her words.
In the case of Drew Peterson, I think you say that when he’s talking about his wife he shows contempt and disgust. That would lead people to believe that perhaps he had something to do with her disappearance. Yet he’s maintaining that she ran off with another man. Wouldn’t it be natural for him to show contempt and disgust if that’s, in fact, the case?
DH: Well, what really concerned me the most was his reaction to the questions raised about whether he was concerned that she disappeared, and how she’s doing. There was either laughter or no emotional response. She’s been gone for a while. If you really loved the person and are jealous or disappointed by their behavior, you would still be concerned about their well-being. I saw nothing emotionally to support that concern. That was the chilly part.
Why put these things up on a blog?
DH: We’re all innately facial coders. There’s a part of the brain that reads other people’s faces. It is six times more sensitive than the part of the brain that reads objects. As former President LBJ once said, “If you can’t walk into a room and know who’s with you and who’s against you, you ain’t worth spit as a politician.” I think as a businessperson, you face the same question.
Face of the Week is an opportunity to showcase instances where someone who is dramatically on display might show a gap between their words and their behavior. It reminds people how important it is to notice the face and what a rich vehicle of information it really is.
Another favorite quote of mine is from Groucho Marx who says to Margaret Dumont in an old movie, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” We are creating an opportunity for people to use their own eyes to look at the videotaped interviews and form their own conclusions.
Dan, thank you very much. It’s been great fun.
DH: I enjoyed it as well.
Email: dhill (at) – sensorylogic.com.