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Research: Empathy Does Not Scale 


Research by Dr. Matt Johnson, Prince Ghuman & Laura Detter



While emotion is recognized to play a large role in consumer decision making, little work has systematically explored the factors which give advertisements their emotional quality. We set out to explore this by isolating a single factor: the number of individuals featured in the advertisement.

We hypothesized that, in line with previous observations from the moral judgement literature (e.g. Slovic 2007), depictions of a single individual would inspire more emotional connection than depictions of groups. To evaluate this, we created 10 original paragraph-long vignettes which promoted specific products. For example, one depicted a someone running through an airport and barely making their flight, as an advertisement for running shoes. In one condition, the vignettes involved a group of people, while in the other, it featured only a single individual. The vignettes were identical in all other respects, instantiating “group size” as the sole independent variable. After reading each vignette, participants judged how emotional these advertisements were, and how much they wanted the featured product.

The results confirmed our hypothesis: individually-based vignettes were consistently reported as more emotional, and furthermore, were also associated with a higher demand for the featured product. Overall, these findings elucidate an important factor which make advertisements both more emotional, and more compelling. Future work addressing how this general effect interacts with a wide range of factors will be needed in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how advertisements derive emotions in their viewers, and how this in turn, translates to consumer demand.