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

Understanding the intricate landscape of human emotions has long been a fascination and challenge for researchers across various fields. In recent years, advancements in technology have opened up new frontiers in the study of emotions. This chapter explores four significant benefits of measuring emotions, shedding light on how this knowledge can transform industries and improve our understanding of human behavior.

Understanding Human Behavior

Emotions are the core drivers of human behavior, influencing our decisions, interactions, and reactions to the world around us. Measuring emotions provides researchers and psychologists with a powerful tool to delve into the complexities of human behavior. By analyzing emotional responses in different situations, we gain valuable insights into what motivates individuals, what triggers specific behaviors, and how emotions shape our perceptions and choices.

Understanding human behavior on this level is invaluable for a wide range of applications. In marketing, for example, it enables businesses to tailor their messaging and strategies to resonate with consumers on an emotional level, ultimately driving brand loyalty and sales. In politics, it allows campaign strategists to craft messages that resonate with voters’ emotional values, increasing the likelihood of electoral success.

Enhancing User Experiences

User experience (UX) is a critical factor in the success of products and services in today’s competitive landscape. Measuring emotions plays a pivotal role in enhancing user experiences across various domains, including technology, entertainment, and e-commerce. User feedback, combined with emotional analysis, allows designers and developers to create more intuitive, engaging, and emotionally resonant interfaces.

For instance, in the gaming industry, understanding how players feel during different game phases can help developers fine-tune gameplay to maximize enjoyment and immersion. In e-commerce, analyzing emotional responses to website design and product presentation can lead to higher conversion rates and customer satisfaction. Ultimately, measuring emotions empowers businesses to create products and services that forge deeper emotional connections with their users.

Personalized Interventions and Well-being

The field of mental health has seen significant benefits from the measurement of emotions. By monitoring and analyzing emotional states over time, clinicians and therapists can personalize interventions and treatment plans to better serve their patients. This approach is particularly powerful in the realm of mental health, where one-size-fits-all treatments often fall short of addressing individual needs.

For example, in cognitive-behavioral therapy, therapists can use emotion tracking to help patients identify patterns in their emotional responses, enabling targeted interventions to manage conditions like anxiety or depression. Additionally, wearable devices equipped with emotion-sensing capabilities can provide real-time feedback to individuals, helping them manage stress and improve their overall well-being.

Predictive Analytics

Measuring emotions not only provides insights into current emotional states but also serves as a foundation for predictive analytics. By analyzing historical emotional data in conjunction with other relevant information, predictive models can forecast future emotional responses and behaviors. This predictive power has far-reaching implications across various sectors.

In finance, predictive analytics can help investors anticipate market sentiment shifts, guiding investment decisions. In healthcare, it can aid in the early detection and prevention of mental health issues by identifying individuals at risk based on their emotional history. Moreover, it can revolutionize customer service by enabling businesses to predict and preempt customer dissatisfaction, leading to improved retention rates.

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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