NEWS18 March 2015

Unlocking the secrets of decision making

News UK

The way consumers decide on everything from buying sex to choosing a domestic gas supplier came under the spotlight at Impact 2015, with the role of research in affecting social change the subject of a panel session this morning.


Introducing two case studies, session chair Ben Toombs, head of qualitative and communications research at TNS BMRB, said the shapers of policies and public services needed complex social proof of how people lived and used services, not just facts.

“Insight is really vital to delivering effective policies, services and communications,” he said.

Rosa Bransky and Gail Steeden from Flamingo, working for a foundation in the US, were helping unlock the reasons for behaviour that perpetuates the sex industry. Rather than interview the men who paid for sex, the team examined the so-called dark internet where men discussed their desires and experiences, and also conducted analysis of mainstream cultural influences, from the New York Times to Friends and much in between.

They discovered a complex, confusing mixture of misogynistic messages, which together contributed to triggering the buying of sex. They were also able to identify times in the “path to purchase” when men might be most susceptible to communications that might deter them.

Bransky said these alternative approaches were more effective than interviewing, which would have raised ethical problems about payment for participation, might have been. “We realised these are questions people can’t answer, not least because they can’t be honest but because they don’t know the effect of cultural forces on their behaviour.”

Justin Gutmann, head of research and insight at Citizens Advice, looked at research into the way consumers make decisions – or avoid making decisions – about switching their energy supplier. He said the issue was of growing importance as citizens were being given increasing responsibility for making decisions about themselves in the fields of health, social care and financial planning.

“Consumers are expected to do the heavy lifting of making markets work,” he said. “It’s more important than ever that we understand the way consumers make decisions and understand what levers are at our disposal.”

Through research with GfK UK Social Research, outlined by Bridget Williams, they found that people lack not just the time and motivation to switch suppliers, they also doubt their own ability to find the best solution for themselves. Easier switching processes and clearer billing were part of the solution – but relying on people to behave rationally would be a mistake. Consumers needed to be treated as adults and presented with the information on which to base rational decisions, but policymakers also needed to accept that most people often don’t have the time or energy to consider it all.

Closing the session, head of insight with the Department of Work and Pensions, Fiona Speirs, discussed the government’s changing needs from research as services increasingly move online. Speed was now a high priority, along with the need to work with smaller budgets.

“The days of briefing a research agency, the occasional phone call to see how it’s going and three months later arranging a big presentation are completely over,” she said. “We expect results back within a week or two, not months.”

Speirs explained the role of quantitative and qualitative research in the design and launch of new online government services, and said that in government at least, the lines between market research and social research were blurring.