Data and Emotion

When I say the word data how does it make you feel? What emotions does it conjure up for you?

Community Poll

In three words, when I say the word “data”, how does it make you feel?

For each individual, the emotions you experience are likely to be different. Some might feel excited and enthusiastic, other bored and apathetic. Whilst for some of you, you might experience hatred or stress.

Whilst, it might not feel the most natural thing in the world, to talk about the emotions of data, it can also be an important thing to spend our time thinking about. We are creating more data than ever before, and it is being used at work, in our homes and social lives. Our relationship with data is becoming increasingly important.

Understanding how we feel about data – what we like about it, where we think it can benefit, but also what concerns and fears it creates is an important part of being able to work with data in a way that we choose.

If you had an overwhelmingly positive response to data, where do you think that came from? Did you have a good experience of it saving you time at work? Do you like the benefits that the new technology gives you?

And how about if you had less positive experiences, what do you think caused these emotions to arise? Perhaps you’ve felt pushed into using it when you didn’t feel it was appropriate, or maybe you had a challenging time in maths or computer science classes in school and it reminds you of that.

What do you think drives the emotions you identified above?

Emotions towards data is an under researched area at the moment. More recently, however, there have been studies on emotions and data and how they relate.

One study for example found that people had very strong emotional reactions when they were shown a graph or other visual representation of data. It could help them emotionally

“The subject matter of visualisations provoked strong emotional reactions amongst participants, including pleasure, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, relief, worry, love, empathy, excitement, offence.” 
As a result, data can be used to as a powerful communication tool, helping demonstrate the importance of and the value in particular issues, whether that’s within our organisation or in our communications with our donors.

It also found, however, that when someone didn’t immediately understand a graph or other interaction with data then they experienced frustration, blaming themselves for not being smart enough or not good at maths.

“Users also had strong feelings about whether they had the skills to decode visualisations. A lack of confidence in this regard had a profound impact on some participants’ engagement with visualisations.”

“I felt confused and a bit stupid for not being able to stay the course with this article. It’s too maths based for me. Too many numbers and pie charts, I get lost in it. (Harriet, extended diary entry)”


Data in itself isn’t good or bad. It has the potential to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems but also has the potential to be used in ways that are concerning. 

Some people in the third sector have had bad experiences with data. The adoption of the techniques feels like a forced decision. It hasn’t come from a place of empowerment or internal decisions as to how they can add value or better serve their beneficiaries. When implemented badly, techniques to measuring impact can feel disruptive, externally motivated and a distraction away from purpose. “We need to tick these boxes and then get back to our actual job.”

It doesn’t however have to be that way.

We can choose to use data with intention, from a place of choice and with the ability to control how and why we use it but to do that we need to look to ourselves first.

Spend some time considering how you feel about data and where you think this might be coming from. Which of them are legitimate concerns and which, perhaps, come from bad experiences in the past?

It can also be helpful to do this with the rest of your team. Steps towards using data in different and insightful ways almost always need to be taken with the buy in and support of your team.

Change can often be driven from a logically derived place but people also need to be emotionally bought into the concept as well. Work with your team to understand what their feelings are towards data, what their experiences have been and what concerns they have. Once you have done this you will be much better placed to move forward and use data in a way which feels right for you and your organisation.


We each have unique views and feelings towards data and how we use it. Studies have found that people have very strong visceral reactions towards data and data visualisations. These can be to the content itself, or how it makes them feel towards their own skills and abilities with data. Spending some time (either alone or as a team) thinking about how you feel about data and where that comes from, can be an important step towards using data within your organisation in a way that feels right for you.

We are always trying to learn and improve about how people can have better more fulfilling interactions with data. What would you recommend to people who feel about data the way you do? (Let us know in the comments below)

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