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OPINION31 May 2016

Under the skin

Behavioural economics Innovations Opinion UK

Galvanic skin response methods are being used to introduce behavioural economics thinking to qualitative research, as Dan Young explains.

System 1, System 2, implicit, framing, priming, anchoring… everyone’s talking about behavioural economics, and much of it is shrouded in a cloud of neuroscience jargon and academic references. In market research, you can add in biometric, galvanic skin responses and such to the cornucopia of confusing language that litters the subject.

Everybody’s talking about behavioural economics because when it comes to everyday behaviour, like the supermarket shop, some estimates credit as much as 95% of our decisions to our subconscious System 1 brain processes.

Within the research community the Holy Grail in recent years has been to develop methodologies that truly tap in to respondent system 1 processes, rather than relying on the traditional model of claimed behaviour, which we know can often amount to little more than guess work.

There are a number of solutions being developed to get to the ‘truth’ of our system 1, subconscious thinking. One of the most exciting comes in the form of so-called ‘biometric’ survey methodologies to measure a respondent’s physiological response, relying less on what people say, and focusing on how they physically react.

We can measure heart-rate, facial expression, eye movement, blood pressure, even sweat, to understand whether, and how, someone is truly reacting to a given piece of stimulus. For robust insight, we never use these methodologies in isolation but as an overlay onto respondents’ reported survey data to ensure both biometric and claimed responses are used to ‘triangulate’ the data points to get to the ‘true’ consumer response.

One such biometric method currently being used is Galvanic Skin Response (GSR). Future Thinking’s innovation think tank Quantum Lab has been exploring and developing our own Galvanic Skin Response offering in partnership with Sensum.

GSR or Skin Deep as we like to call it, measures skin conductance and is based on the phenomenon that the skin becomes a better conductor of electricity when stimuli occur that are physiologically arousing. Skin Deep measures the emotional arousal of two types of sweat glands; apocrine which helps us cool down and eccrine which is associated with psychological reactions.

These sweat glands are found in concentrated numbers on the palm of our hands and soles of our feet. It is thought that more sweat glands are here for evolutionary reasons which allowed our ancestors to better grip things in times of danger.

You sometimes feel your hands sweat if you’re nervous, and this is essentially the same reaction that a GSR study measures, except for the fact that most stimuli under testing won’t cause your palms to noticeably sweat. However under the skin’s surface the level of sweat will have increased which is enough to increase the electrical conductivity of the skin (the amount the skin conducts/transmits electricity). Put more simply GSR enables us to measure a respondent’s physiological reaction even when they are not themselves aware of it.

Most GSR studies place two electrodes on the person’s non dominant hand – on the base of the thumb and on the midpoint of two fingers. This small wrist-strap device with a fingertip monitor attached, measures the electrical responses in a respondent’s skin to understand whether what they say in a research survey is consistent with how they really feel, whether they know it or not.

Based on the same technology as you’d find in a lie detector test, we are currently trialling this technique in qualitative research (focus groups, accompanied shopping trips etc).

It’s too early in our trials to draw specific conclusions, but so far, we’re finding that we have access to a level of depth not found in traditional research methods.

Clients who have been shown GSR in action have been amazed at their own physiological responses and when prompted by the results from the GSR outputs, were able to use these prompts to explain the drivers of their reactions more articulately. We, along with others in market research, are just scratching the surface of methodologies that will enable us to better understand and predict the short-cuts our sub-conscious brain uses to navigate a busy world. We’re finally starting to use the elusive System 1.

Dan Young is head of Quantum Lab at Future Thinking