FEATURE15 March 2010

Think twice


Simon Vangelder, MD of TwoMinds Research, asks why market research hasn’t done more to embrace learnings from neuroscience and psychology.

It is common knowledge that humans are not entirely rational beings. We all know that. But what, as research practitioners, do we actually do about it?

Learnings about how the brain works from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology give us much to ponder. We don’t control most of what our brain decides for us. Our rational mind works as a junior partner to intuition and emotion. We have two minds – conscious and unconscious, and they don’t always agree. We have hard-wired evolutionary instincts that determine our outlook and behaviour (our intuitive aversion to the new and our love of sweets are two examples).

This is all orthodox opinion among neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists. Unfortunately, so is the fact that we have an intuitive aversion to the new, and that once we’ve decided something, we don’t like to change our minds.

“The academic community has done most of the work on the workings of the mind for us”

From a market research standpoint, the academic community has done most of the work on the workings of the mind for us – leading to a point where we have ready-made, validated, agreed and fully published techniques. These tools now represent conventional wisdom, the Harvard implicit association test being a very well-known example. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

A number of far-sighted research and marketing practitioners are early adopters of this knowledge, developing practicable tools for specific challenges. Our agency has assessed the workability of available techniques from hundreds of published papers and integrated them into our practices.

These new approaches can work across a whole spectrum of subjects, some obvious and others less so. Political and social opinions are well suited because of the contrast between what people think they should say, what they think they believe and what they actually feel. Our parent company Woolcott has used this understanding to develop strategies for blood donation campaigns and environmental issues. Logos and other visual materials that are not processed at the high-attention level are also relevant. The techniques have also been applied to price positioning and portfolio management in the power tools category.

So when all evidence points to the centrality of intuition and subliminal processing in human decision-making and behaviour, why are we so painfully slow to incorporate this in our thinking and practice?

We know from the science of persuasion that even the subtlest reframing of a proposition can radically alter behaviour. So maybe the issue of unconscious processing and intuition itself needs reframing – maybe there needs to be a buzz about it before it is seriously considered by the mainstream. The weight of publicity seems to have nudged the COI (the UK government’s communications arm) across the threshold, but there is a whole raft of reasons for inertia among agencies and clients.

On the agencyside I suspect that commercial pressures mean most market research companies put less time into R&D than they would like. Agencies are simply not incentivised to innovate. They keep on doing the same old things, so most of them aren’t aware of what is happening in the academic field.

“Large MR companies and their clients have a powerful vested interest in their current methods. Smaller research agencies don’t have the resources to put into innovation development”

Large MR companies and their clients have a powerful vested interest in their current methods. Ongoing tracking and continuous studies use metrics that are tried and tested. An edifice is built up and continually reinforced. Why risk knocking it down?

In reality these new approaches do not replace such metrics; they just add an extra dimension. But no one really wants to hear about new thinking that appears to pull the rug out from under the way they’ve been doing things for the last twenty years.

Smaller research agencies, even if they are more innately progressive, just don’t have the resources to put into innovation development.

Maybe it’s also a question of terminology. As humans we tend to reframe information to suit our existing beliefs and prejudices, so when presented with a new term we often place it into the nearest available box. This is what I suspect might be happening with ‘intuition’ – some people are assuming that it is just a new means of accessing emotions.

Research practitioners talk about emotions as the ‘hidden’ drivers of our behaviour and needs, in contrast to rational thought. It is a common and limiting dichotomy – all issues not placed in the ‘rational’ box are placed in the only other box remaining. Since agencies already provide answers to the question of emotion, why be bothered with intuition or unconscious processing? It’s the same thing, isn’t it? In fact emotion and intuition are related but not synonymous.

Many open-minded agencies use projective techniques to get below surface level enquiry but this does not reveal subliminally stored impressions and associations. The techniques we are talking about register low-attention and unconscious-level processing that enable our intuitive judgement.

Another issue is that the market is over-supplied. Choice is a burden and clients are bombarded with seemingly identical claims all the time. When faced with an approach that feels different and scary, it takes no effort or cost to dismiss it as ‘interesting but not for my market’. Intuitive aversion to the new can sometimes kick in.

We once presented to the insight department of a European company, citing the approval that we had already received from the head scientist in their R&D department. Unfortunately levels of denial were so strong that the insight manager’s dismissive response was, “Well I haven’t heard of him so that hardly helps your argument.” That’s the sort of entrenched behaviour that results from an aversion to the new. The company had so many actual and potential research suppliers (and was doing fine, thank you very much) that there was simply no incentive to take any risk.

Some might fear that the approach threatens to overturn all of their beliefs, assumptions and practices. Well, yes and no. It represents a fairly big step forward but it overturns nothing. It provides an extra layer of insight and reassurance. It is another way to cross check hypotheses and findings. In fact the techniques we use only have meaning when analysed in conjunction with the explicit level findings obtained through more conventional methods.

I’ve painted a rather gloomy picture of denial and perhaps even wilful conservatism among some in the industry – but that’s certainly not the case for many clients. It’s just that the issue hasn’t yet become mainstream and familiar enough for a fair hearing.

There are perfectly good reasons why the instinct to protect what we have is so often dominant. Research shows that we feel losses far more acutely than we feel gains – and this is especially true in a business environment that does not reward risk (or what looks like risk).

Fair enough. But all the scientific exploration, experimentation and validation have already been done. Surely the safe bet is to go along with agreed principles and proven practices and take the next step in the evolution of market research.


10 years ago

I think Simon makes some very valid points. At one time Market Research was far more in-tune with the field of Psychology that it has been of late. In its infancy the industry was concerned with forging a role in the corporate world and psychology provided the basis for challenging and edgy thinking. Theories such as Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs were embraced and built into our approaches and ultimately have become commonplace. But as our industry has grown up, so competition has increased and as Simon says we have built walls around overselves for the sake of protection. Sticking to the accepted conventions has become the norm. Although many contemporary market researchers may be familiar with Maslow's pyramid I wonder how many have taken the trouble to read his 1943 Paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in which the concept was first introduced. In the early stages of my career my job was about process. The unquestioning execution of research according to accepted wisdom and approaches under the assumption that we had everything worked out and nailed down. Latterly however as I have come to be involved in neuroscience and psychology generally, I find that current thinking in these academic disciplines both augments and challenges some of the wisdom upon which our industry has relied since its formation. This is not to say that as researchers we should necessarily be actively involved in the application of neuroscientific techniques, although at times and for certain issues there is certainly value in these lines of exploration. However by looking outwards towards academia we can find new inspiration enabling us to approach market research and the business issues that direct it in new, refreshing and more insightful ways.

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10 years ago

I really welcome Ian's trenchant comments on the article; he’s absolutely right that research practitioners, in the main, have lost their receptivity to the latest thinking. Safety and conservatism seem to have taken a strong grip on many of us. Ian also makes the point that, niche issues apart, we should not necessarily be ‘actively involved’ in the application of these techniques. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but the inference one can make here is that it is perfectly valid to be actively involved in endlessly discussing neuroscience and related academic thinking – without the need to actually do something about it. Why? I don’t want to labour the point, but if we all agree that unconscious processing and intuition are central to peoples’ decision making and ability to make snap judgements, then this should be reflected in our practices on a very wide range of issues. After all, we have at our disposal techniques that are perfectly validated, quick and simple to use – and above all, represent a tiny fraction of a project’s costs.

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10 years ago

By saying "This is not to say that as researchers we should necessarily be actively involved in the application of neuroscientific techniques" what I meant was that we don't all need to be involved in the appliction of neuroimaging techniques such as EEG and fMRI in order to reap the benefits of neuroscience (although at times this helps). However, reading up and educating ourselves in fields such as neuropsychology can provide insight into how the human brain works in terms of processes such as decision making and memory formation which in turn can provide a fresh perspective over how we go about conducting research - the questions we ask, the protocols we follow etc...

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