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How Can Big Data Trigger Positive Emotions?

There is plenty of information these days about how big data can tap into human emotion. Recent Facebook experiments showed how big data can be used to gather emotional information and then manipulate it. There is even research using Twitter data that shows that the rate of heart disease can be predicted accurately from the emotional wording used on that social network. Meanwhile, research at the University of Rochester has shown that by using big data, it is possible to detect human emotion in photographs. The notion that we can extract emotional information from big data is not that new.

However, there is another emotional issue with big data that needs considering. The huge amount of data and the complex ways of analyzing it present us with a human problem. The sheer amount of data to consider can lead to negative emotions.

Do people smile when they see your data?

Human emotions come in pairs – love or hate, sadness or elation, hope or fear. For every negative emotion, there is a positive one. Psychologists still argue about how many human emotions exist. What is clear, however, is that the emotional centers of the brain are involved in everything we do. It means that when faced with big data, people react emotionally.

Falling in Love with Data

The last thing anyone wants in the world of big data is to trigger a negative emotion. Do you want your staff dealing with big data to be frustrated, angry or indifferent because of what they see? One of the core emotions has to do with attention. People are either emotionally attracted to something, or they are emotionally repelled by it. Which direction do you want your staff to go?

Of course, it is unlikely that you can get many people to fall in love with big data. Nor are they likely to express sheer joy at using big data. But there is an opportunity to reverse frustration and turn it into relief, or convert panic into curiosity, for instance.

So how can you trigger positive emotions when the sheer volume of data, the time it takes to work through it and the never-ending analysis all seem geared to creating a negative frame of mind?

One of the key drivers of positive emotion is imagery. People are visual, and so data presented as images – charts, graphs and diagrams – does much better than tables and lists. People react negatively to long lists and tables, but positively to the same data presented graphically.

Another trigger for emotion is known as facial feedback theory. In this, our emotions are triggered by the changes in our own facial muscles. So, if we force ourselves to smile, for instance, we instantly start to feel happier. The physiological feedback of the muscles in the smiling position makes our brain think we are happy. For suppliers of big data, this means if you can trigger the facial muscles of the user into a positive expression, they will think more positively about the data. One way of doing this is with the use of fun or humor – the “gamification” of data.

Finally, you can induce positive emotions by getting a person to present the data, rather than a computer. The findings and analysis of the data can be done by a person on video, for instance, talking the user through the data and the analysis of the information. People engage more positively with another person than they do with a spreadsheet. All you have to do is get a person to describe the contents of the spreadsheet and you will have triggered a more positive emotion than just by distributing the spreadsheet itself.

Big data is highly valuable to business – but only if the communication of that data engages people and makes them want to use it. They can only do that if they have a positive emotional response to the data.


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