OPINION29 October 2013

Big data vs. emotional drivers: collision or synergy?

Two major trends in research – harnessing big data and understanding the emotional drivers of behaviour – are seemingly at odds: one takes a broad view and the other focuses on detail. But they can work together, argues David Forbes.

The rapid proliferation of technologies and techniques for passively following and observing consumers as they work, play, and live their lives – and for aggregating these passive observations to create business insights – presents many opportunities. The ocean of social media content and online consumer conversation represents another opportunity to observe consumers as they talk and express opinions, and creates still further big data.

One consequence of the big data revolution is that research can become increasingly decentralised, as nearly everyone can participate in gathering the “who, what and where” of consumer behaviour. This use of big data has allowed researchers to explore the portmanteaux of “SoLoMo”: looking at subjects as fundamentally social beings (So) defined by circumstances of the particular moment (Lo) and perpetually on the move (Mo). Such an evanescent research subject must clearly be understood primarily through big data – big enough to allow us to discern patterns amidst the chaotic granular flow of life as an endless series of lived moments.

The prospect of an exponentially expanding database of consumer behaviours – with many of their actions and utterances located and specified as to place and time – is indeed awe-inspiring. Much will doubtless come of our growing abilities to directly observe, catalogue and analyse behaviour. And woe to the market research industry if it does not rise rapidly to find the best ways to use this mother lode of consumer insight.

The appeal of this kind of objective data as more “scientific”, and the attraction to a behaviourist approach to explaining human behaviour in terms of patterns among external observables, is a strong and recurring theme in psychology. Throughout much of the 1950s and into the 1960s, this approach held sway in the mainstream, as psychologists sought to externalise their science, and to operationalise the “whys” of human behaviour as a series of contingencies between actions and outcomes.

“Emotion can’t be inferred from a geo-location, and can only be understood in broadest terms from a facial expression. Purely observational study of consumers will still leave a lot to be learned about consumer emotions”

The focus on emotion

However, even as the clarion calls of SoLoMo and big data resound in industry forums, we also hear from other quarters that psychological science in general – and market researchers in particular – have become increasingly interested in understanding the power of emotion in influencing behaviour. Recent work has emphasised the power of emotion to shape, and sometimes drive, our seemingly rational decisions and behaviours. And emotion, as viewed by the majority of its students, does not usually reduce to purely observable phenomena.

Market research focusing on emotion typically strives to look deeply rather than broadly in its search for consumer insight. Emotion is most often understood as an intrapsychic phenomenon, and the study of emotion thus inevitably means pursuing phenomena of subjectivity, and even seeking to penetrate beneath the events of conscious awareness.

Emotion understood in these terms clearly can’t be reduced to a series of behaviours. It can’t be reliably deduced from a string of verbalisations on a social media site (where people post, in the end, the things that they want us to think they think and feel.) Emotion can’t be inferred from a geo-location, and can only be understood in broadest terms from a facial expression. Purely observational study of consumers will still leave a lot to be learned about consumer emotions.

It seems that the market research industry is sitting atop two trends that are at some odds with one another. One school of thought pushes researchers to stand back from consumers, and emphasises passive observational data. The other trend pushes researchers to investigate more deeply into the consumer psyche, and emphasises psychological forces behind behaviour that cannot be passively observed with precision or reliability.

Collision or synergy

There is no “right” or “wrong” in this situation – and in fact it is actually a misnomer to describe these two research trends as “colliding”. Indeed, the best approach is probably to develop learning strategies which embrace both of these research trends.

But there will be a need to understand what methods serve what purposes. Analyses of the whos whats and wheres of big data can tell us a lot about what happens in consumers’ lives – and this can surely empower our understanding of how products and services can best fit into the flow of these lifestreams. Analysis of emotional forces, in contrast, will focus our understanding on the whys of behaviour – with the resulting insights into the forces which are driving behaviour, and resulting potential to influence it.

David Forbes holds a Ph.D. in clinical and cognitive psychology from Clark University, and founded Forbes Consulting – a strategic market research consultancy – over 20 years ago.