OPINION23 September 2011

Best behaviour

Speakers at this week’s Esomar Congress in Amsterdam brought authority and experience to the hot topic of behavioural economics.

Speakers at this week’s Esomar Congress in Amsterdam brought authority and experience to the hot topic of behavioural economics.

Stephen Phillips and Abi Hill of Spring Research discussed what research can learn from behavioural economics, picking up the best paper award in the process, while Orlando Wood of BrainJuicer looked at how it could help efforts to reduce binge drinking.

Phillips explained how behavioural economics accepts that people tend to be “more like Homer Simpson and less like Superman”. He also looked at how behavioural economists go about their work – and what research can learn from them.

Classical economists, Phillips said, come up with “grand models” of how the world works, then test them with real world data. Inevitably the data doesn’t quite fit, so they go back, tweak their models and start again.

Behavioural economists, on the other hand, start with the data – conducting experiments to see how people actually behave and building their models from there.

But market researchers are lagging behind both groups, Phillips argued. Instead of creating models and applying real world data, researchers “force people to answer questions in relation to the model we’ve created”. Rather than seeking to prove or disprove their models, researchers simply “populate” them.

Phillips believes research methods and questions are too limiting. Take the idea of the purchase funnel, for instance. If you ask people, ‘What was the long list of brands you considered?’, ‘What was the short list of brands you considered?’ and ‘What sources of information did you use?’, they’ll give you answers. But the answers won’t help you understand whether or not the model reflects how consumers actually make decisions.

Abi Hill suggested that research methods should be designed to encourage freer, more open and more detailed answers – which usually means fewer and shorter questions. Although it’s impossible to remove the ‘anchoring effect’ of reference points that influence people’s decisions, we should try to avoid imposing our own anchors in the way we talk to people, and seek instead to understand theirs, she said.

In another session, BrainJuicer’s Orlando Wood reported on a mass ethnographic study (recruiting participants to observe others around them) of binge drinking in the UK, which took its cues from behavioural economics.

Participants were asked to focus on one of four perspectives: the individual, the social setting, the local environment and the choice environment. From this BrainJuicer was able to see the factors influencing people’s choices about drinking, and come up with a set of suggestions for encouraging more responsible drinking without resorting to higher taxation.

For instance, if bars removed the minimum amount for card payments (or only accepted cash), drinkers would not be encouraged to buy more than they planned to. Introducing table service would take away the temptation to buy rounds, and more seating would encourage people to drink more slowly. Even training bar staff to be more knowledgeable about the drinks they’re selling could encourage drinkers to treat drinks with more respect, rather than just knocking them back, Wood suggested.

Stephen Phillips said the implications of behavioural economics for research can be boiled down to “context and conversation”. “Context is the elephant in the room in market research”, he said. “We ask people what they want to buy when they’re at home instead of in supermarket. Why? Because it’s simpler and cheaper. Unfortunately it’s also wrong… We should be having much more open, free conversations with consumers instead of imposing this rigid structure of the world that we have.”