Human emotions are a significant component of customer experience. Emotions take precedence in determining whether they choose to continue to interact with a brand. Most customer experience practitioners would agree ... but at the same time there seems to be very little valid consideration of what causes users to have emotions, such that when someone speaks to the way a user "feels" it is often very subjective: ask why they think a user would feel that way and the answer is seldom satisfactory.
This is likely because emotions themselves are poorly understood, and even in the present day there is a great deal of mysticism about the cause of emotion, or how the term "emotion" is even to be defined. Emotions seem to be random and unpredictable, an even in the present age of reason they are characterized as invisible demons that attack without warning and for no apparent reason. To speak intelligently about users' emotions requires a clearer definition and understanding of the subject.
An emotion is a cognitive state
To begin, it is important to acknowledge that emotion is a cognitive phenomenon - it has to do with the way that we think. The perspective that emotions and thoughts are two different things, particularly that they are opposing forces, has been a serious impediment to understanding emotion because it declares emotion to be separate from the rational mind.
We do not feel instead of thinking - we feel because we think - and the relationship between the two is interactive. The relationship between the two is that emotion is the environment in which thought occurs. Our thoughts influence our emotions (thinking about a situation makes you angry) and our emotions influence our thoughts (when you are in an angry mood, you are inclined to have negative and hostile thoughts).
It should also go without saying that emotions are not resident in any part of the body outside of the brain. We speak of emotions such as love, disgust, and lust as being felt in the chest, intestines, and other parts of the anatomy, but recognize that the physical sensation is separate from the emotion that exists in the mind.
An emotion is a cognitive state that may arise in response to a stimulus
Likewise, emotions are generated within the mind - while we may identify some external source that caused an emotion to arise, we recognize that the emotion comes from within. The suffering of another person did not send pity into us, but the sense of pity arose from within at the sight of human suffering. It is a reaction in the observer. This the reason that something that causes one person to experience emotional does not arouse the same emotion in others. Each person reacts differently, such that an emotion "may" arise in response to stimuli - it also may not arise in response to stimuli.
The term "stimulus" is purposefully vague because there are various kinds of stimuli that may evoke an emotion: it may be sensory perception of events in the external environment (something we hear makes us angry), somatic perception of events internal to the body (a sharp pain in the abdomen makes us fearful), or even a thought within the mind (something we think about makes us sad).
It should also be consider that emotion may be a cumulative response to multiple stimuli: something that we hear when we have a stomachache and are thinking about the weather forecast - an it is possible for these three to occur simultaneously. The complexity of the compound effects of multiple stimuli can likely be sorted out, but "an emotion" (singular) is due to "a stimulus" (singular) and the next stimulus creates a change in our overall emotional state. That is, the subject had a stomachache before he started thinking about the forecast, and was thinking about the forecast before he heard something that piqued his interest.
An emotion is a cognitive state that may arise in response to a stimulus, based on an assessment
The notion of "assessment" brings me to maintain that emotions are cognitive in their origin. The reason that people have different emotional reactions, if any at all, is not simply because they are subject to a given set of stimuli, but because they assess the relationship of the stimuli to themselves. That is to say that on any given day, we are subjected to thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of stimuli, but we react only to a few of them. All of the rest of the stimuli pass without causing us to feel anything at all, and whether or not we have an emotional reaction has to do with the way we assess a given stimulus.
Assessment is not always a protracted process - it can happen in an instant. The sound of a hiss in high grass causes a sense of fear without deliberating over what might have made that noise. "It's a snake!" is an assessment that does not require much cogitation, and it's likely many of our baser emotions derive from survival instincts that cause us to react quickly and without much meditation. The fact that we feel a bit sheepish when we later discover this assessment was wrong does not mean we didn't make an assessment, just that we didn't make a particularly well informed one.
Assessment is also not always an objective process. To be objective, a person has to step outside himself to assess the situation from a disinterested perspective. And while a person may be capable of doing so, his initial reaction is always relevant to himself. However, there are also emotional states that can arise during the course of objective assessment, so I'm sticking to "an assessment" without insisting that it be subjective.
Assessment is also not always a conscious process. We are often confounded by our emotions, particularly when we look back upon an emotional reaction and cannot identify why we felt the way we happened to feel. However, my sense is that this does not mean assessment is not done. Because it may have been a knee-jerk reaction, we may not recognize the assessment.
Consider that the method of psychoanalysis is largely focused on getting a patient to talk through through an emotional reaction so that he can recognize and understand the reason he experienced an emotional state. While we sometimes choose not to think about such things (or have a hard time admitting to the assessments that were made) there is a reason that we experience emotions, and the reason is generally a process of rational assessment (though the rationale may be seem irrational).
An emotion is a cognitive state that may arise in response to a stimulus, based on an assessment of its relevance to existing concepts of propriety
Assessment is an evaluative process that compares one thing to another, and in the context of emotion it is an assessment of a stimulus against a concept that previously existed. There is likely more to be said about the concepts that are employed in evoking an emotional reaction (our concept of self, our concept of others, our concept of reality, our concept of justice, our concept of relationships, etc.) - but for now I'd like to keep it generic.
Relevance is the first qualification: I previously considered that the reason a person experiences or fails to experience emotion is that not everything he perceives is assessed, and the reason something would be assessed is that it is relevant to the person himself. We are far more likely to feel emotion if something bad happens to a ourselves rather than to a another person, or if it happens to someone we know rather than to a stranger, or if we identify with a stranger to whom it has happened. The less relevance to self, the less likely emotion will arise. And if there is no relevance, then there is no emotion.
I may be going out on a limb to suggest that the relevance that is assessed is in relation to propriety - but I am unable to conceive of an example in which it is not so. That is to say that we have a concept of the way things ought to be, and our emotional reaction is largely based on whether the stimulus we have experienced matches to our pre-existing concepts.
For example, the difference between a comment and an insult is that the latter causes us to experience emotion because we assess that it is not right or proper for someone to say such a thing. That is, what was said does not match against our existing concept of self (or concept of another person if we are not the object of the insult) and this causes us to become upset or angry. Likewise, when we see something happen that should not happen, we experience emotion because our concept of physical reality or ethical appropriateness is challenged.
That is not to say that emotion only arises due to mismatch: when a stimulus affirms our existing concepts, it too may still cause an emotional reaction. Consider that the opposite of an insult is a complement, which generally causes positive emotions if we happen to agree with the compliment (though it again becomes a mismatch if we do not feel the complement matches our existing concepts). This, too, may become filigree if I chase after the specific reaction when the relationship is to reinforce or contradict the notion of propriety.
In the context of customer experience, an emotion is a cognitive state that may arise in response to a stimulus, based on an assessment of its relevance to existing concepts of propriety
Finally, I'm tacking on the qualifier to identify the definition as being relevant to customer experience. There are many competing definitions of emotion and a great deal of conflict even within specific fields. My purpose in this meditation was to consider emotion in the context of customer experience, because what is germane to the interest of practitioners in that profession is the way in which we consider the way in which customers will react to the stimuli we present to them as being relevant to the brands we represent, and to adjust those stimuli to result in emotions that are supportive of their relationship to and subsequent concept of our brand.
That is not to suggest we consider the customer to be a blank slate on which our intentional stimuli create an emotional outcome. It is equally important to understand the customer's emotional state, as part of the mental model, that is created by circumstances and experiences beyond our control - the fact that you don't know what is already in the subject's mind is what makes applied psychology such a messy affair - but if there's any hope of untangling the mess, it must be based on an approach to emotion that does not consider people to be driven by demons, but by thoughts that can be understood to explain emotion and better react and leverage the emotional aspects of customer experience.