FEATURE1 December 2010

Hear me out: Let’s make respondents cry


Ever had an idea that you know is genius, but everybody else thinks is crazy? Here is your chance to share it with the world of research. This month it’s the turn of Richard Smith, director of qual research at BDRC Continental.

What’s the big idea?
Any market researcher who has ever had a respondent break down in tears would agree that it’s an experience they’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. But perhaps we should start to see the more positive side of respondents getting emotional.

This all sounds very un-British.
I know. Although we live in a world where people pour their hearts out on national television and every celebrity’s heartache is serialised in magazines, as a nation we are still squeamish about showing emotion. Crying is in some respects a taboo - something that, if it has to happen at all, is expected to happen behind closed doors. Against this cultural backdrop, the idea of letting respondents cry during an interview is regarded as strictly off limits.

Nobody wants to upset anyone.
Actually, unlike many of my peers, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve made respondents cry. Some of the most revealing interviews I’ve carried out have ended in tears. Does the fact that my respondents have had a genuine emotional response to a piece of market research necessarily have to be a bad thing?

If a man accuses a woman of ‘being emotional’ he usually means it in a pejorative sense - she’s acting irrationally. But the latest work in neuroscience teaches us to rethink the nature of emotions. They are hugely effective for making rapid decisions because they process vast amounts of data quickly. When you have a gut feel for what you should do in a particular situation, it’s not just some vague, unstructured indicators, it’s your subconscious telling you that it’s made thousands of calculations and arrived at a decision. When someone cries it’s an indicator of a heightened physical or psychological state.

Given that research, and more specifically qualitative research, is by and large the study of people and how they respond to things, I don’t see why crying (along with other expressions of emotion) should necessarily be something researchers should seek to avoid. An emotional response – tears, anger, amusement – indicates a certain strength of feeling. Generally speaking when we elicit strong reactions from respondents, we are actually getting to what they really think.

Will your clients feel the same?
I think they would prefer their businesses to take decisions based on heartfelt responses rather than apathy. Far more useful to know that your new product design stirs up real hatred among your target group than to see it greeted by a shrug of the shoulders. We don’t ask respondents if they’d like us to stop the tape and bin the interview when they start laughing, so why do we feel the need to abort the moment they start to cry?

That’s easy to say if you’re not the one in floods of tears.
Actually, my experience teaches me that respondents are on my side on this one. In my seven years of conducting qualitative research, never has a respondent who has broken down taken me up on the offer of stopping the tape or abandoning the interview.

So you’re going to select stimulus material specifically to get people teary?
No. That wouldn’t be right. But providing a safe environment where respondents can access memories and experiences that have a strong emotional impact is exactly what good qualitative research should be about. Every client I talk to tells me that they want to get closer to their customers. What they actually mean is that they want to understand how people work and what this means for their brand and the products, services and messages that are integral to it. If this is the objective, then researchers – both client- and agencyside – should expect to see the whole range of human emotion, however uncomfortable that may be.

Do you have a madcap idea you’d like to share with our readers? Send an email to robertb@researchmagazine.co.uk