By Dr. Marcel C.M. Bastiaansen
Senior lecturer and researcher in quantitative research methods,
Academy for Leisure and Events, Breda University of Applied Sciences
Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology, Tilburg University
The Netherlands

Emotions make leisure experiences special

In the tourism, hospitality and leisure industry experiences are the core economic offering (Pine & Gilmore, 1998, 2011). Tourists, guests and visitors are pursuing experiences that are both meaningful and memorable, and this creates a need for developing reliable and valid experience measures.

There is a growing consensus amongst scholars that emotions are crucial ingredients for meaningful and memorable leisure experiences (Bastiaansen et al., 2019). It is the emotions that are felt during any particular leisure experience that make the experience stand out from the many ordinary experiences of everyday life. This consensus is based on insights borrowed from experimental psychology (Jantzen, 2013), as well as from the groundbreaking work of Kahneman and co-workers (Kahneman, 2011).

The exact timing of when emotions happen during a particular leisure experience is thought to be an important determinant of how that experienced is being evaluated after it has unfolded. One influential proposal, usually referred to as peak-end theory (Fredrickson, 2000), predicts how the temporal pattern of lived emotions during an experience transforms into remembered experience: the emotional peak, and the intensity of the emotin at the end of the experience, are thought to be the most important predictors of experience evaluations. Peak-end theory has attracted much attention amongst researchers and experience providers alike, as the memorability of an experience is seen as essential to guiding future decisions about repeat visit and recommendation behavior (Kahneman, 2011; Zajchowski et al., 2016).

However, evaluating peak-end theory, or better even, putting it to practical use for the leisure industry, is a tricky business. Measuring the ebb and flow of emotional engagement while an experience is unfolding is difficult at best. Traditional approaches to studying experiences predominantly rely on questionnaire or interview data collected after the experience has unfolded, thus ignoring the waxing and waning of emotions during the experience. One step closer to better understanding the relationship between the temporal patterns of emotional engagement on the one hand, and the memorability and/or meaningfulness of a leisure experience on the other hand, is to try and have guests reconstruct the experience after it has ended.

Work from our Experience Lab (Strijbosch et al., 2019), based on self-reported, reconstructed temporal profiles of emotional engagement, suggests that during a leisure experience of watching a short VR movie, the average emotional engagement (measured as valence – positive or negative feelings – and arousal – the intensity of the feeling – better predicts the overall evaluation of the experience than the emotional peaks and ends. These findings challenge peak-end theory.


Measuring emotions

The theoretical development and empirical question sketched above poses methodological challenges to studying tourism, hospitality and leisure experiences. Measurement tools are needed that capture the moment-by-moment, second-by-second changes in emotions in detail. This requires understanding how they are expressed.

Emotions are responses to personally relevant stimuli, and are are expressed at three levels (Ekman, 2016): in phenomenology (how does it feel to the person in question), in behavior (what does a person do when feeling a particular emotion), and in physiology (which bodily changes occur when an emotion is felt. Therefore emotions can be measured at each of these three levels of expression: phenomenology through self-report, behavior through observation, and physiology through recording bodily changes (for a more detailed discussion, see Bastiaansen et al., 2019; Mauss & Robinson, 2009).

Physiological measures, i.e. bodily responses resulting from emotions, seem to be particularly useful (in addition to the well-established self-report measures) for studying experiences, for different reasons. First, such measures have sub-second precision and therefore can provide detailed time information about the waxing and waning of emotions during an experience. Second, experimental psychological research has established in detail – at least in carefully controlled laboratory settings – how different electrophysiological measures vary as a function of emotional valence and arousal. And third, recent technological developments have made it possible to continuously record electrophysiological measures while people are freely engaging in leisure activities (walking through a museum, being in a guided tour, or sitting on a roller coaster), by using wearable recording devices (for example wristbands looking just like a slightly oversized watch)  that make measurement unobtrusive and enable high ecological validity.


Skin conductance as a tool for measuring leisure experiences in real time.

In the past two years, in our Experience Lab we have attempted to establish whether recordings of electrical skin conductance can be reliably related to leisure experiences. A change (an increase) in electrical conductance of the skin occurs when sweat glands on the palm of the hand or the soul of the feet are being activated. This activation consistently happens when an emotion is being experienced. By attaching high-end, fitbit-like wristbands on people while they are enjoying a leisure experience, we were able to measure rapid changes in skin conductance. These signals, when properly analyzed,  are a reliably indication, second-by-second, of the level emotional arousal of people as they experience unfolds.

In a wide range of different research projects, we have demonstrated amongst others that skin conductance changes can be meaningfully related (1) to the events that occur during a roller coaster ride, (2) to specific exhibits in a museum, (3) to the different locations of a guided tour in an outdoor museum, (4) to the changes in landscape during a leisurely bike ride, and (5) to the different scenes of a musical show in a theatre. All of these different findings are currently in the process of being published as scientific journal articles, and have in multiple cases served as useful input to the respective leisure providers for redesigning and/or optimizing their experiential offerings.

In conclusion

At Breda University, we are developing the contours of an innovative theoretical and methodological framework that unpacks experience into its constituent elements, with a strong emphasis on emotions as the building blocks that make experiences memorable and meaningful. In our view, this new framework, and the initial empirical support we have observed for it in recent years, greatly contribute to a deeper understanding of how visitors, tourists, and guests experience leisure offerings, which in turn better enables our industry partners to provide their customers with the best possible experiences.


Bastiaansen, M., Lub, X., Mitas, O., Jung, T., Passos Acenção, M., Han, H., . . . Strijbosch, W. (2019). Emotions as core building blocks of an experience. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 31(2), 651-668.

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Pine, B. J., & Gilmore, J. H. (2011). The experience economy: Harvard Business Press.

Strijbosch, W., Mitas, O., van Gisbergen, M., Doicaru, M., Gelissen, J., & Bastiaansen, M. (2019). From experience to memory: on the robustness of the peak-and-end-rule for complex, heterogeneous experiences. Frontiers in psychology, 10.

Zajchowski, C. A., Schwab, K. A., & Dustin, D. L. (2016). The Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self: Implications for Leisure Science. Leisure Sciences, 1-8.