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

In our everyday language, we use the terms “emotions” and “feelings” almost interchangeably. Even if their meaning somehow overlaps, from a more objective standpoint, they are distinct experiences. Emotions are reactions that have a strong physiological component, such as feeling intense fear when someone jumps in front of your car on the road. On the other hand, feelings are a lot more complex: they can tell a lot about our outlook on life, our previous experiences, and our most personal beliefs.  

Knowing the difference between a feeling and a temporary emotion will not just make you a more emotionally intelligent person, but it will also help you understand people in more nuanced ways. Besides, understanding and knowing how to measure emotional reactions is particularly beneficial for researchers, marketers, or related fields where this information is particularly valuable. In this article, we will explore the difference between feelings and emotions and discuss how we can measure them with the help of technology. 

Emotions and feelings

We can view emotions and feelings as related components that make up our subjective human experience. Perhaps what they both have in common is their intrinsic subjectivity: the experience of a feeling or emotion is felt internally. There are many situations when we experience both of them simultaneously, which is why people will talk about having feelings when in reality they’re having a purely emotional experience. However, emotions differ from feelings in very distinct ways. Let’s see what we mean by that. 

What are emotions?

From a biological perspective, emotions are responses to stimuli, manifesting in a series of biochemical and electrical reactions in the body. Some people are surprised to find out that what they thought was a purely subjective, mystical experience is, in fact, a largely physiological reaction.

How to Measure Emotions and Feelings

Think of a time when you felt extremely nervous while speaking in front of a large crowd. Most likely, you had a physiological experience more than anything. Your palms were sweaty, your heart was racing, and your entire body was in a state of alert. Of course, you could also say that the experience of public speaking has a deeper meaning for you, linking to memories from your childhood and bringing more complex feelings to the surface. But in that moment when you were flooded with anxiety, you had an emotional experience. 

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Even if emotions have a strong subjective component, they also involve parts of the autonomic nervous system and brain regions like the amygdala and the neocortex [1]. Some emotions have a strong survival role, helping the body mobilize key biological processes to respond to threats and flee danger. Of course, in the modern world, emotions are less about surviving and more about navigating situations, and relationships, and responding to the stimuli in our environment. They offer us guidance on how to approach people and everyday situations so that we make the right decisions. 

What are feelings?

Feelings are the reactions to the emotions that get triggered in our bodies. They occur as a conscious experience and are largely subjective. Based on our past experiences, memories, thoughts, and personal beliefs, we make mental associations depending on the emotion we are feeling and assign it meaning [2]. For example, the core emotion of anger can be felt in various ways by different people. Some might have feelings of aggression, vengefulness, or resentfulness when they’re angry, while another person will feel disappointment, rage, or despair. Unlike emotions, feelings are not just primal reactions – they’re more evolved responses that can say a lot about who we are. 

Can feelings be measured?

Since feelings are conscious experiences, they can be measured through various tools. In experimental research, feelings are usually measured through surveys, interviews, and questionnaires. However, every self-report method is very subjective, which might lead to inaccurate interpretations.

Measure Emotions through Facial Expression Analysis

Understanding emotions can offer immensely valuable information about people. While feelings are subject to biased interpretations, measurement of emotions in psychology or commercial settings through facial expression analysis can provide more accurate data about someone’s behavior, intentions, preferences, and so on. 

Facial expression analysis (FEA) offers a mirror into people’s inner emotional state. Using fully automated computer algorithms that record facial expressions via webcam, FEA detects emotional reactions in real-time, without relying on subjective interpretation or self-report. 

Setup and configuration

Facial expression analysis uses use cameras embedded in laptops, tablets, and mobile phones or standalone webcams to capture real-time emotional reactions of people exposed to various stimuli. Almost all facial expression analysis engines contain the following components:

  1. Face detection
  2. Facial landmark detection and registration
  3. Facial expression and emotion classification

Once the facial features are captured by the camera, they are compared against the standard database provided by the facial expression engines.

Data collection

Gathering data about someone’s emotional reaction begins with preparing the stimuli. These could be images, videos, or advertisements that are likely to have an immediate emotional impact on the person seeing them. However, one thing to keep in mind is that the subject should start from a neutral emotional baseline so that their reaction can be entirely attributed to the stimulus they’ve been presented with. Once the person is exposed to stimuli for long enough to fully process their content, the facial analysis tool will pick up on their micro-expressions, track features of their faces, and measure those against a database of emotions taken from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS)

Analysis and interpretation

Once the facial features are captured by the camera, iMotions facial analysis tools extract relevant features and use them in the emotion recognition process. The emotion recognition model then generates an output of the emotion probabilities (e.g. angry, scared, happy). The interpretation could include a graphical representation of facial expressions, emotion labels, or visualizations of emotion probabilities (e.g. “happy,” 20% as “neutral,” and 10% as “sad.”)

4 Benefits of Measuring Emotions

Emotions play a prominent role in the understanding of human behavior [3]. In some domains, such as marketing, commercial industries, and human behavior research, data about emotional responses and feelings is crucial in making sure that the customer’s behavior is well understood. Here are some other benefits of measuring emotion. 

Understanding human behavior

Emotional reactions can say a lot about someone’s patterns of behavior [4]. For example, if they show excitement to similar images or stimuli,  it becomes easier to predict their behavior in other similar contexts. As a result, you are able to provide feedback and make decisions with their behavioral patterns in mind. 

Enhancing user experiences

Today’s competitive market makes it imperative for brands to deliver outstanding customer experience. The most successful brands will be those that ensure that the customer is satisfied, which is only possible when tapping into their direct emotional experience. Instead of delivering a general user experience, the measurement of emotion allows you to create unique, customer-tailored ones, which will translate into higher client satisfaction in the longer term. 

Personalized interventions and well-being

The individual differences between people mean that different strategies need to be used to satisfy a greater range of customers. The insights into the emotional reactions of various categories of people help researchers design and optimize marketing strategies in order to cater to the needs and preferences of more people. 

How Feelings and Emotions can be researched

Since emotional reactions say a lot about someone’s behavior, understanding them makes a big difference in research, marketing, education, and customer service. Compared to the previous self-report measures used in research, facial analysis tools offer more accurate information and can lead to more client-centric interventions. 

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The face is the most complex nonverbal system in the body, so having access to its information is a major benefit to industries where the client comes first. Emotions and feelings are no longer unquantifiable things – they can now serve as signposts to what’s happening in someone’s mind. With a better understanding of someone’s internal experience, we can make predictions about their behavior, meet their needs, and make decisions better aligned with them. iMotions facial analysis tools offer a solution to the measurement of emotions and lead to a better understanding of people’s internal world. 


[1] Bechara, A., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2000). Emotion, Decision Making and the Orbitofrontal Cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 10(3), 295-307. doi: 10.1093/cercor/10.3.295

[2] LeDoux, J. (2012). Rethinking the Emotional Brain. Neuron, 73(5), 1052. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.02.018

[3] Kaiser, C., Oswald, A. (2022). The scientific value of numerical measures of human feelings. PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.221041211

[4] Mauss, I.B., Robinson, M.D. (2009). Measures of emotion: A review. Cogn Emot. 2009 Feb 1; 23(2): 209–237., doi: 10.1080/02699930802204677

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