How to Measure Emotions and Feelings (And the Difference Between Them)

Understanding the difference between feelings and emotions is an essential aspect of emotional intelligence. Emotions and feelings are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Emotions are intense, short-lived, and instinctive responses to stimuli, while feelings are longer-lasting and shaped by personal experiences and thoughts.

Knowing the distinction between the two can help individuals better navigate their emotions and effectively communicate with others. In this article, we will explore the differences between feelings and emotions and discuss how they can impact our lives, and how they can best be researched.

Emotions and feelings

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?

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) [1] and the neocortex (ventromedial prefrontal cortices, which deal with conscious thoughts, reasoning, and decision-making) [2, 3].

Learn More: An Introduction to Theories of Emotion

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 [4]. One theory is that this is why emotional memories are usually perceived as stronger and are so long-lasting [5, 6].

Can emotions be measured?

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.

What are feelings?

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 [7].


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.

Can feelings be measured?

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 [8] 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.

SAM rating

How Feelings and Emotions can be researched

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: What are emotions and how do we measure them?

PS: If you’d like to learn even more about human behavior, then download our free guide below!

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[1] LaBar, K., & Cabeza, R. (2006). Cognitive neuroscience of emotional memory. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7(1), 54-64. doi: 10.1038/nrn1825

[2] Bechara, A., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2000). Emotion, Decision Making and the Orbitofrontal Cortex. Cerebral Cortex10(3), 295-307. doi: 10.1093/cercor/10.3.295

[3] Donoso, M., Collins, A., & Koechlin, E. (2014). Foundations of human reasoning in the prefrontal cortex. Science344(6191), 1481-1486. doi: 10.1126/science.1252254

[4] 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

[5] Smith, A., Stephan, K., Rugg, M., & Dolan, R. (2006). Task and Content Modulate Amygdala-Hippocampal Connectivity in Emotional Retrieval. Neuron49(4), 631-638. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2005.12.025

[6] Richter-Levin, G., & Akirav, I. (2000). Amygdala-Hippocampus Dynamic Interaction in Relation to Memory. Molecular Neurobiology22(1-3), 011-020. doi: 10.1385/mn:22:1-3:011

[7] LeDoux, J. (2012). Rethinking the Emotional Brain. Neuron73(5), 1052. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.02.018

[8] Bradley, M., & Lang, P. (1994). Measuring emotion: The self-assessment manikin and the semantic differential. Journal Of Behavior Therapy And Experimental Psychiatry25(1), 49-59. doi: 10.1016/0005-7916(94)90063-9

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