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Suzanne J. Peterson, Christopher S. Reina, David A. Waldman and William J. Becker


The application of physiological methods to the study of psychological phenomena has garnered considerable interest in recent years. These methods have proved especially useful to the study of emotions, since evidence suggests that validly measuring a person’s emotional state using traditional, psychometric methods such as surveys or observation is considerably more difficult than once thought. The present chapter reviews the challenges associated with measuring emotions from a purely psychological perspective, and suggests that the study of emotions in organizations can benefit from the use of physiological measurement to complement traditional assessment methods. We review more established approaches to physiological measurement, including those related to hormone secretion, cardiovascular activity, and skin conductance. We then highlight somewhat more recent attempts to use neurological scanning. A theme of this chapter is that both psychological and physiological measures are relevant to understanding and assessing emotions in

New Ways of Studying Emotions in Organizations Research on Emotion in Organizations, Volume 11, 3—27 Copyright © 2015 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited All rights of reproduction in any form reserved ISSN: 1746-9791/doi:10.1108/S1746-979120150000011002

organizations. Accordingly, we propose a multi-method approach involving both types of assessment. Finally, we discuss the practical and ethical implications of employing various forms of physiological measurement in the study of emotions, specifically in the context of organizations.

Keywords: Emotions; physiology; measurement; neuroscience


From a layperson perspective, emotions should be fairly easy to measure. Emotions are often seen as synonymous for feelings so simply asking a person how he or she feels should be adequate. Another common way to measure the emotions of others is to watch and infer based on how they behave or act. This includes facial expression, vocal expression and body language. Increasingly, however, researchers are recognizing that selfreport and observational methods do not capture the full picture of emotions (Davidson, 2003; Mauss & Robinson, 2009). For instance, an individual might answer that he or she feels calm, but that person’s heart is beating rapidly. Someone else might smile when another person walks into a room, but report not feeling anything. Yet another individual might report feeling disgust toward another, yet will hug him or her when they meet, perhaps for appearances sake. In short, traditional psychological methods are important, yet limited. They are best suited to evaluate an individual’s subjective experience of emotion or others’ subjective interpretation of behaviors that they believe indicate emotion. What they cannot ensure is accuracy — that is whether individuals are really feeling what they are reporting or displaying.

The use of physiological methods in the study of emotion at work can address this limitation by providing a more ecologically valid way of capturing emotions that employees are experiencing. For instance, self-report measures of emotion focus on how someone reports to feel. Although this is important, we also know that certain physiological changes occur in our bodies when we experience emotions (e.g., when we feel anxious our heart rate increases and sweat glands activate). Furthermore, we may believe that we are accurately capturing excitement by asking people whether they feel excited or by asking others if they believe someone is excited based on their behavior. However, can we be sure that what we see is excitement, rather than nervousness? Individual differences in physiological activity can allow us to draw more valid conclusions regarding the differences between these two related, yet different, emotions. Quite simply, physiological measurement can increase our confidence that someone is truly feeling what he/she is reporting to feel or what others believe to be observing that one feels.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, physiological methods allow researchers to answer more complex questions regarding emotions that should facilitate the development of stronger theories. For instance, are emotions really all in the head? Psychological theories (e.g., Lazarus, 1991; Scherer, 1984) suggest that they are, while neurophysiologists suggest that there is a strong visceral component to emotion (Adolphs, Tranel, & Damasio, 2003). Another question is whether emotions are always conscious feeling states? Neurophysiological measures of brain activity such as EEG and fMRI allow researchers to record rapid, immediate changes in emotional responses that would otherwise be impossible to assess without interrupting an individual’s participation in an experiment, or simply impractical through self-report because these processes are not available in the conscious mind.

In summary, a complete assessment of emotions should take into account all levels of analysis, ranging from the feelings and behaviors associated with emotion to how they are measured at the physiological and neural level. Therefore, the purpose of this chapter is to inform researchers in the applied psychology and organizational behavior fields on how physiological methods can complement and advance the study of emotions at work. We are not suggesting a “throw the baby out with the bathwater approach” when it comes to psychological methods. Rather, we argue that psychological measurement needs a supporting cast to fully capture or complement (Becker & Cropanzano, 2010) the complexity associated with emotion measurement. We also seek to better inform those who may not be fully aware of the increasing accessibility of physiological methods. In our experience, many researchers in the organizational sciences assume these methods to be too complex — namely, they require deep-level expertise to understand and operate, invasive to participants, and expensive to employ. We seek to dispel those largely faulty perceptions to some degree by highlighting the advent of new methods. Our hope is that this chapter encourages more widespread use of these methods in organizational research.

In the section “Psychological Approach to the Study and Measurement of Emotions,” we describe how we are defining emotion for the purposes of this chapter. We then provide an overview of the most commonly used psychology-based measures of emotion and highlight why emotion should not be studied from a purely psychological perspective. In the section “Connecting the Physiological and Neurological Measures,” we describe the most readily available or practical physiological (also known as biological) as well as neurological methods, and emphasize how they might help to overcome some of the problems found in traditional, psychological methods. In the section “Ethical and Practical Considerations,” we point out which conceptual areas related to emotions at work can most benefit from physiological methods. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of the ethical and practical considerations surrounding the use of these methods in organizations.

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