Dissecting the Science Behind Gut Feelings

Emotion-Based Qualitative Research in Healthcare
Learn how one healthcare system leveraged emotion-based qualitative research to ensure employee engagement and inform brand repositioning

As researchers, we’re always cognizant of the old adage, what gets measured gets done, even as it pertains to things that some may consider difficult to quantify, such as emotions. Knowing that data informs decisions, we’re big believers that you can actually apply quantifiable metrics to qualitative measurables; and when you do, actionable intelligence is the result.

The truth is, you really can perform algorithmic calculations on emotion-based dimensions. In fact, you must. This is especially true for brands who are trying to understand the connections people have to their products, services and experiences.

Daniel Kahneman is a modern-day psychologist known for his contributions to the psychology of judgment and decision making, as well as those to the field of behavioral economics. His best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, details the results of research that examine the two “modes of thought,” along with the unreliable nature of human judgement. In his work, he demonstrates that the human brain has two systems of thought: System 1 is characterized by fast, automatic, non-conscious and emotional activity. System 2 is slower, more logical, calculating and conscious.

The results of years of study show that up to 95% of all cognitive activity—the system we use to make decisions everyday— is System 1 activity. In other words, we “go with our guts” more often than we do with our “brains.”

Think about what this means relative to your ability to invite humans into a brand experience with your organization. And consider just how critical it is to both qualify and quantify what’s going on in your constituents’ System 1 system of thought.

A case study in emotion research

There is perhaps no other sector that deals so widely and deeply in emotions than the healthcare industry. Think about the emotions being experienced in a hospital at any given moment: Fear of the unknown…the grief evoked by an ailing loved one…the joy of a new birth…the relief of a positive prognosis…the sorrow of both emotional and physical pain experienced…the serenity administered through patient care.

Now think of that hospital as a business. A business with employees, competitors, profit-loss statements, and customers. If a hospital, doctor’s office or health system is going to remain in business, it must compete at as high a level as any other operator in any other business sector. So it must know the decision-making drivers of all constituencies, from patients and caregivers to employees and board members.

We recently partnered with an agency who was engaged by a large midwestern health system to evaluate its current brand positioning and authentically and effectively reposition the brand in a way that engages and inspires positive emotional connections amongst all of the aforementioned stakeholders.

The first step was to understand reality. To quantify and to qualify. And to truly get to “the heart of the matter”—where decisions are made, as research shows—and that truly was the heart. Emotions.

Somewhat coincidentally to the recent Disney movie dealing with emotions, it was important to take an inside-out approach to the study, and start with the innermost circle of constituents. In this case, that was staff and other like stakeholders. We had conversations and executed a survey with doctors, nurses, non-medical staff, management and leadership, and some medical students, in order to gain a thorough understanding of the emotional responses to the health system. What emotions are elicited among those working within the walls? For, if we could truly understand those, we could use authentic emotional drivers to further engage each subsequent outer ring of stakeholders, from patients and hospital visitors to the general public at large.

What we learned was truly illustrative. The client certainly had no way of truly knowing what emotional drivers were at play, until we asked. They were pleasantly (somewhat) surprised to learn that:

  • 80% of the emotions expressed by this sample were pleasant emotions.
  • The pleasant emotions were roughly equally expressed as Joy (inward and active) and Serenity (inward and passive).
  • The negative emotions expressed were generally more applicable to external realities relative to their industry, rather than the system itself (work-life balance, laws and regulations, etc.).
  • The positive emotional words that were most common were feelings of pride, support and being appropriately challenged at work.

The power these results manifest from a strategic perspective was twofold:

  1. Armed with an understanding of reality, the system was able to make informed decisions on how to roll out new brand repositioning and a potential rebrand.
  2. They uncovered important assets from a messaging standpoint: The system was authentically able to promote an engaged, positive patient care infrastructure because that’s truly what they had: happy, engaged, and contented employees!

What got measured? What got done?

The data discovered though this combined qualitative/quantitative approach armed the agency and its client with powerful intelligence to eventually inform a creative campaign that would invite and maintain broader constituent affinity. The research would later go on to study emotion properties of subsequent layers to the proverbial onion, including patients and their loved ones. Once the campaign was ready to roll out, the agency and hospital system took a similar approach to re-engaging their audiences: They started with employees first, before rolling anything out externally. In doing so, the campaign was strategically designed to make certain that external messaging matched internal patient care experiences.

The system’s evaluation metrics are showing significant positives in how the system is ranked nationally, and the business’s operational metrics are trending more positively as well. The creative firm was able to naturally leverage the most prominent emotion of pride, and the creatives could embed that into the brand and marketing materials.

This process provides more than the obvious, functional feedback, in terms of relaying experiences. It provides scoring data. It provides intelligence delivered using sophisticated algorithms, just as one might use to gather quantitative data sets. But it goes much further than surveys, by understanding the true emotional profile of the greater organization. Once you have that, and have an aspirational metric to calibrate it against, you can understand the gap between where you want to be and where you are today, as a company.

And it’s not just hospital systems that operate on emotion. As Daniel Kahneman’s research reminds us, 95% of the decisions your employees, managers, customers and influencers will make will happen in their System 1 modality—emotions! If you are going to gain the favor of the even the outermost ring of our stakeholder circle (the “general public”), you absolutely must start at the center. If the external brand promises don’t match the internal customer experience, any invitation you send out the world will be met with regrets…either yours or theirs!

If you’d like to know more about how we analyze and harness emotions for brands, marketers and market researchers, I invite you to familiarize yourself with the Martec Emotion Score. The MES gives emotions numerical values in order to differentiate between pleasant and unpleasant emotions, in addition to understanding their intensity as it relates to brand interaction. It’s a powerful method for connecting emotions to the rational drivers (features & benefits) marketers have been measuring for many years.

To receive a copy of a report we did relative to emotions and employee engagement in the healthcare industry, please contact us directly. In the meantime, if your gut is telling you to start a conversation today about your company’s ability to connect with System 1 motivators, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

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