• James Odene

SIX basic emotions and the information trap

Cuteness attack!

We might not like to hear how we can be reduced to six emotions, but within communications and campaigning it can be useful to consider these SIX emotions as great starting points.

In the 1970s psychologist, Paul Ekman identified six core emotions that he proposed were felt by all of the human species. Using a blend of facial recognition, body language and language choices, he pinned us all down to just 6 ways of feeling.

The SIX core emotions:







Although this has been later expanded to include further emotions with more complex compositions, these basic six are still none-the-less considered universal and powerful.

Using these as a start point within a campaign can be a useful tool in ensuring an emotional drive is provided in any work we do.

Emotions cause action

Think of an advert that really got you somehow, maybe from years ago and yet it just stuck with you, here’s betting it was narratively using one or two of these core emotions.

It can be easy to assume that your communications are emotional because they are emotional to you, however perhaps they are relying on information, which is not the same and will not have the same level of impact - this is what I would call the information trap.

Emotion or just information (the information trap)

Consider for a moment this graphic. It’s something very basic I made as way of an example.

Would you say that it is emotional, or information based?

I would argue that it could be considered all too easy for someone to view this graphic to be information that barely registers emotionally. The issue is that it is communicating from the position and mind of the communicator, not the audience.

"Anything we communicate will get twisted according to the mind it enters. Our ideology is simply not as powerful as our audience's own mental machinations. As marketers, we have to accept people for who they are and work within the framework they have."
- Katya Anderson, Robin Hood Marketing

Here are two potential versions that play with emotion:

Version B

This is the full-on emotional impact, with a blood spatter for good measure. Is it emotional? Yes. But with the added side effect that it is likely to also turn a lot of people away. Rather than feeling emotional about the message and therefore wanting to do something about it, they could just club the whole thing together and want to do something about the entire graphic – namely, move on and look away.

Version C

This is more of a psycho-logical approach. It is messaging that is closer to the audience’s position than my own. It introduces an emotional value on the hen displayed and it works on a more subconscious attempt to create emotion within the observer. I’m not suggesting that this is the perfect graphic but rather goes someway to explain the difference between signposting with information, overloading repellent emotions, or enticing with seductive emotions.

"Instincts are heritable, whereas reasons have to be taught; what is important is how you behave, not knowing why you do. [...] the best way for evolution to encourage or prevent a behaviour is to attach an emotion to it."
- Rory Sutherland, Alchemy

You are not your audience

I suspect that because the subject matter is something that those working within farmed animal activism deem to be emotional, there is a propensity to too easily assume the same level of emotion can be achieved in others. This can lead to under or inappropriately emotionalised content and therefore a reduction in impact.

In this video, Dan Ariely talks about an experiment he conducted that had two sets of groups make origami models. One group had the full instructions and the second had a redacted version of the instruction, making the origami construction much harder.

Out of these two groups, the group that had the harder instructions deemed their origami to be of higher quality than those who had the full instructions. This is known as the ‘Ikea effect’ – whereby we consider something that we had to work for more valuable than if we just receive it. But the key point I want to raise here is that not only did the second group rate their model more highly, they also assumed a much higher rating by others towards their models – in other words, they found it very difficult to see that others would view their creation differently.

I think this can happen within the vegan and farmed animal movement, we expect others to feel how we do when they see what we see.

Consider asking these three questions about your content to see if it avoids the information trap:

  1. Would this have an emotional impact out of the context of the organisation?

  2. Is the emotional content positioned in the customers mind-frame or point of view?

  3. Have I tested to see what impact the content has on a sample audience?

As a small aside, I would also love to see more experimentation with a wider variety of emotions rather than always going for sadness or disgust, such as humour, surprise and happiness!

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