GSR in Consumer and Market Research

(Galvanic Skin Response)

In This Article

> Overview

> What is GSR or Galvanic Skin Response?

> Why consumers are actually used to GSR testing tools – it’s like a FitBit!

> How GSR helps provide interpretation for other forms of research

> Why GSR market research is fairly simple to conduct

> How GSR enables a researcher to understand the nature of the person’s response in detail

> Why is GSR considered a reliable source of behavioral data?

> GSR as a cost effective, complementary research tool

> How to choose the right way to test GSR for your organization

> GSR for your business – the right choice?


Have you ever watched a film or seen something happen in front of you and felt your skin crawl?
Making someone’s skin crawl is an old phrase but it is not simply a poetic use of words. The skin is the human body’s largest organ and is constantly sending signals to the body’s nerve center. These reflect emotions, reactions, instincts and a whole range of other feelings and thoughts.

As a marketer, this will doubtless make you prick up your ears. After all, that sort of information about what is going on inside the human mind is exactly the type of gold dust looked for in marketing research. The good news is that a technology known as GSR can help you harness it for your commercial benefit. Here, we explain GSR in more detail – how it works and what you can do with it.

What is GSR or Galvanic Skin Response?

GSR stands for Galvanic Skin Response. Put simply that refers to the way in which the skin communicates a person’s emotional reaction to a certain stimulus. GSR uses the way the body communicates to understand emotional reactions.

When you feel certain emotions, whether positive or negative, your body reacts by secreting a small amount of sweat through the glands in your skin. It may be so little that it is not visible or in any way apparent to you. However, it is present and can act as an indication of the depth of reaction your body felt. Importantly, sweat secretion happens without your conscious control.

Whether or not you sweat in response to something is a reptilian-level response. Sweat secretion and the associated changes in skin conductance are nonconscious processes that are under sympathetic control (the same part of your nervous system that controls your heart rate and blood pressure) and reflect changes in arousal. In emotional situations, bodily processes are triggered automatically, the heart beats faster, the pulse rises, hands become sweaty.

Sweat – even in small quantities – acts as a conductor of electricity. So, by using electrical current at a low level and seeing how much it travels, it is possible to determine the sweat level the body is producing. The degree of electrical conductivity indicates a person’s depth of reaction to a specific stimulus. The highest density of sweat glands on the human body are on the feet and hands. That means that those body areas offer the best place to measure sweat activity.

GSR technology allows a safe and non-intrusive way to test nonconscious drivers of behavior.

picture of a device with finger electrodes used to measure galvanic skin response

Why consumers are actually used to GSR testing tools – it’s like a FitBit!

In recent years, there has been fast growth in the area of consumer wearables. Athletic and health tracking devices such as Fitbit have launched to great acclaim. Consumers have become accustomed to wearing such wearables without really thinking about them.

One of the strengths of GSR is that it piggybacks on this behavior. The sweat measurement element of GSR is carried out via a simple wristband that a consumer wears. As such, it is relatively easy to get consumers to participate in the study. As it is unobtrusive, they are more likely to act as they usually do than in some research methodologies where the consumer is continually reminded of the artificial nature of the research environment.

How GSR helps provide interpretation for other forms of research

Using GSR on its own as a research tool is possible. However, merely registering the emotional reaction of a respondent to a stimulus means that it could be a rather blunt instrument. For this reason, it is common to find GSR paired up with other research tools.

For example, GSR frequently supports eye tracking research. Eye tracking research allows companies to see where respondents’ eyes move when they are shown a certain stimulus. For example, they may be shown advertising copy, a webpage design or packaging mockup and  then monitored to see where their attention is focused, as shown by how their eyes move. However, eye tracking on its own does not necessarily help to explain why respondents’ eyes are moving the way they are. It is common to interpret reasons but basing this on our instinctual reaction can simply add in additional research biases.

That is where GSR can help. By providing real-time continuous readings of the skin’s activity, GSR can link positive or negative emotional states to the eye tracking results. This can help to explain eye tracking results based on science rather than a mere hunch.

Why GSR market research is fairly simple to conduct

GSR relies on science, but it’s not overly complex. This has an advantage in making the technology accessible and affordable for market research.

The main requirement to conduct GSR research is the biometric hardware for measuring pulses and the software to interpret it. Also, it helps to have a trained expert on hand who can interpret the data for you.

GSR research is best done in a facility which keeps GSR equipment and personnel on hand. The main use for GSR is looking at the reaction to copy and communication. It is also possible to use GSR tracking out of the lab and in a real-world environment, for example in an accompanied shop or consumer home visit. This will require more organization, but as the wristband itself is small and portable, it’s not a big burden.

How GSR enables a researcher to understand the nature of the person’s response in detail

The basics of GSR are indeed simple. However, it can still unlock answers to a surprisingly broad range of questions.

The mind processes all sorts of thoughts when reacting to information. That covers a wide gamut of emotions. Some of those may be positive, such as liking, enjoyment, appreciating, joy and laughing. Some are negative, including fear, frustration, dissatisfaction, dislike, and repulsion. However, based solely on GSR we can’t extract whether the arousal was due to positive or negative stimulus content. GSR output is identical for both positive and negative stimuli. So while GSR is an ideal way to measure emotional arousal it is not able to reveal the emotional valence that is the quality of the emotions. The true power of GSR unfolds as it is combined with other data measures to help paint the full picture of emotional behavior.

Why is GSR considered a reliable source of behavioral data?

If you have ever seen old film or television shows including a lie detector, some of this discussion about GSR may sound vaguely familiar to you. Lie detector machines work on somewhat similar principles. However, you may also be aware that there is also much controversy about how accurate lie detectors are.

GSR is an accurate methodology for several reasons.

First, it measures the physiological reaction of the human body in the form of sweat. There is scientific research which explains the correlation between sweat level and amount in certain areas and specific emotional responses. Unlike many research techniques, this is a straightforward measurement exercise which does not involve any guesswork.

Additionally, the way in which GSR examines responses reduces the risk of misinterpretation. It is simply used to indicate that a respondent had a certain level of arousal. That is an objective fact. It is not clouded by being tied in to open questions.

GSR as a cost effective, complementary research tool

Most marketers and insight managers agree about the business value of end-user or shopper insight. Understanding what goes on in the mind and heart of potential or existing consumers, from first awareness through purchase and use, is very helpful in optimizing the product, communication, and marketing strategy.

However, research costs time, money and effort. In most organizations on a limited budget, choices have to be made. Not all research methodologies can be used. Sometimes there will be a rush to use a single methodology because it is fast, proven or cheap – even if it is not necessarily the optimal methodology for the research question to be answered.

As a standalone methodology, GSR is not an obvious first choice. It can help to explain what has been discovered in other research but is not designed to deliver wide-ranging research answers on its own.

However, if you want to include GSR as part of a suite of research methodologies, such as complementing eye-tracking research, it can be a good choice. There are a few reasons why GSR can be a helpful addition to your research arsenal without necessarily being expensive. It is a fairly standardized methodology which is simple to execute. So, using a provider who has already invested in the necessary equipment and training, the cost of the research itself can be quite low.

As respondents typically come to a lab to participate in GSR research, the research can be fast and cost-effective to organize.

How to choose the right way to test GSR for your organization

If you are interested in knowing more about GSR and seeing its utility up close, it can be helpful to try it out on a real-life project.

You may want to start with a small study that is easily manageable. You can then trial GSR and see what you think about it before considering whether it could play a role in larger research projects.

In choosing the right testbed for GSR, you will need to consider a few things. First what is the research objective. GSR works best when you are looking to gauge the magnitude of emotional responses to something. For example, it might be well suited to testing advertising in combination with other biometric tools to see what approaches or scenes are engaging. When testing more static content such as a package, it would be less useful.

We have outlined the basics of GSR above, including the value it adds to marketing research. Whether it is right for your business will depend on what you want to do and how you are approaching it from a research perspective. Based on the outline above, what sort of questions do you think could form an interesting testbed for GSR where you work?

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