How to Measure Emotions and Feelings (And the Difference Between Them)
While emotions and feelings are quite different, we all use the words interchangeably to more or less explain the same thing – how something or someone makes us feel.
However, it’s better to think of emotions and feelings as closely related, but distinct instances – basically, they’re two sides of the same coin.
Here is how they differ.
- What are emotions?
- Can emotions be measured
- What are feelings
- Can feelings be measured?
- How Feelings and Emotions can be researched
Imagine this: You sprint through the airport, on the run to catch your flight. While you try to make your way through the crowd of people waiting in line at the security check, you spot an old friend you haven’t seen in ages.
Before you can say anything, you tear up overwhelmed with excitement (and forget about the rush) while you give your friend a firm hug.
Emotions are lower level responses occurring in the subcortical regions of the brain (for example, the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system)  and the neocortex (ventromedial prefrontal cortices, which deal with conscious thoughts, reasoning, and decision making) [2, 3].
Those responses create biochemical and electrical reactions in the body that alter its physical state – technically speaking, emotions are neurological reactions to an emotional stimulus.
Did you know? The amygdala plays a key role in emotional arousal. It can regulate the release of neurotransmitters in the hippocampus, an area central to memory consolidation . One theory is that this is why emotional memories are usually perceived as stronger and are so long-lasting [5, 6].
Emotions are physical and instinctive, instantly prompting bodily reactions to threat, reward, and everything in between. The bodily reactions can be measured objectively by pupil dilation (eye tracking), skin conductance (EDA/GSR), brain activity (EEG, fMRI), heart rate (ECG), and facial expressions.
While emotions are associated with bodily reactions that are activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain, feelings are the conscious experience of emotional reactions.
Originating in the neocortical regions of the brain, feelings are sparked by emotions and shaped by personal experiences, beliefs, memories, and thoughts linked to that particular emotion. Strictly speaking, a feeling is the side product of your brain perceiving an emotion and assigning a certain meaning to it .
Interestingly, this process works both ways: While the actual encounter with a spider (stimulus) might freak you out, just thinking of it can activate the same emotional response.
The conscious nature of feelings makes it quite easy to measure them using self-reporting tools such as interviews, surveys, and questionnaires including rating scales and self-assessment procedures.
Tip: The Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM) of Bradley & Lang  is a non-verbal pictorial assessment technique that directly measures feelings (pleasure – displeasure) and arousal levels (low – high) of respondents when confronted with various emotional stimuli.
In commercial and academic human behavior research, collecting data about emotional responses and feelings is central for obtaining valuable insights into processes associated with observable actions, thoughts, and memories of the respondent group of your interest.
What do we mean when we talk about someone’s “emotions”, or their “emotional responses”? Moreover, what can we reliably measure about an individual’s “emotional experience”, and how do those measures help us understand behavior? Dr. Brendan Murray and Dr. Jessica Wilson will give an introduction to what we mean when we talk about “emotions”, and how we can measure emotional experience in meaningful ways.
Check out our webinar:
PS: If you’d like to learn even more about human behavior, then download our free guide below!
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 Donoso, M., Collins, A., & Koechlin, E. (2014). Foundations of human reasoning in the prefrontal cortex. Science, 344(6191), 1481-1486. doi: 10.1126/science.1252254
 Richardson, M., Strange, B., & Dolan, R. (2004). Encoding of emotional memories depends on amygdala and hippocampus and their interactions. Nature Neuroscience, 7(3), 278-285. doi: 10.1038/nn1190
 Smith, A., Stephan, K., Rugg, M., & Dolan, R. (2006). Task and Content Modulate Amygdala-Hippocampal Connectivity in Emotional Retrieval. Neuron, 49(4), 631-638. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2005.12.025
 Richter-Levin, G., & Akirav, I. (2000). Amygdala-Hippocampus Dynamic Interaction in Relation to Memory. Molecular Neurobiology, 22(1-3), 011-020. doi: 10.1385/mn:22:1-3:011
 LeDoux, J. (2012). Rethinking the Emotional Brain. Neuron, 73(5), 1052. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.02.018
 Bradley, M., & Lang, P. (1994). Measuring emotion: The self-assessment manikin and the semantic differential. Journal Of Behavior Therapy And Experimental Psychiatry, 25(1), 49-59. doi: 10.1016/0005-7916(94)90063-9