Should Market Research ask why?

A large part of market research budgets is spent asking people why. Why did they buy this and not that? Why did they like this one better than the other? Why did they rate that concept so low? Qualitative research makes a practice of asking why, why, why all the time, so we can understand the reasons for behavior.

Recent evidence is emerging from the field of behavioral economics that demonstrates that people often don’t know the real reasons why they do something. Sure, if you ask them why, they will come up with a logical sounding reason that supports their action or their preference. But the evidence is pretty clear that those reasons often aren’t the whole story and, in fact, may be entirely false. Daniel Ariely’s book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone, especially ourselves is just the latest of several books that touch on the topic. The research he recounts identifies several ways in which we are influenced by cues in our environment that we are unaware of to make different choices about honest. He also talks about how people make up reasons, even when there isn’t a real reason because we (as humans) are storytellers. We turn everything into a story, one that we tell ourselves and others. In one experiment he recounts, women were asked to choose their favorite pair of stockings from a set of several. When asked why they chose that particular stocking, they told him a “reason”. But all the stockings were identical, so the reasons were false. The real reason was that it was that they consistently chose the one on the right, but the women were unaware of that unconscious preference and that the stockings were identical, so they made up a “reasonable” sounding reason.

The surviving founder of the field of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman, has written a book summarizing decades worth of research into the field called Thinking Fast and Slow. The basic idea is that when we are thinking fast (which is most of the time), we are acting at a level which we don’t use conscious reasoning. Slow thinking is when we have rational reasons for our actions, but we don’t spend much of our time in slow thinking. Our society runs much too fast for us to ponderously think about every single decision.

Ernest Dichter, one of the early founders of Market Research, agreed with the fact that people don’t know why they take action. He was quoted as saying “Asking shoppers why they bought particular products was like ‘asking people why they thought they were neurotic’ .” (The Economist from Dec 17th, 2011 p 120) So, if spend all our time asking why and then acting on these reasonable sounding “whys” but they are false made up “Whys”, what you create using that information won’t work.

Awareness of this phenomenon is beginning to spawn new techniques. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the increasing demand for hiring MFAs in Design who know about creating environments that affect people’s choices. The side bar to that piece mentioned that market research needs to morph to do more side by side tests. Another piece later talked about P&G developing an electronic system to try out different bottle designs, that gave a different answer from the focus groups that it replaced.
This is yet another pressure facing the field of market research.

Here’s a start at a list of techniques that can help uncover the true reason why people really make their choices:

  • Ethnographic work tells you the situation people are in, which can help you understand the factors people aren’t telling you
  • Psychological motivation models (When I worked on selling one to a brand team a little while ago, I got a lot of pushback from the brand team, but the result was that it gave new insight into why people were acting as they were. Using that information, they decided on a new direction that they couldn’t have imagined.)
  • Multiple monadic side by side tests of different options
  • Using multiple measures from one person to create derived importance measures
  • Looking at physical measures of how people react when they see something or say something that they aren’t even aware of (EEG and other brain wave tracking, eye tracking, GSR, pulse, etc.) (otherwise known as Neuromarketing)

Reader, be honest. How much time do you spend asking why that might be wasted and might actually mis-direct you? What actions are you taking to change to keep up with the latest thinking?  What techniques are you starting to use, and how successful have they been at uncovering new insights?

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2 responses to “Should Market Research ask why?

  1. In order to shift behavior, convictions (emotional and/ or emotional) must be engaged. The ability to effectively, repeatedly engage convictions requires fluency in what a target finds relevant. From my perspective, fluency depends on a thorough understanding of the ‘why’.

    But, ‘why’ is complicated, and essential. Far too complicated for us to accept-at-face-value a respondent’s earnest explanation of it. And far too essential to be ignored. What a respondent ‘says’ – at least in a qualitative context – should be considered just one component, one factor, for consideration. What they say is not the answer. What they say + everything else the qualitative researcher identifies = the answer. And in order for ‘the answer’ to have maximum utility, it should include ‘why’.

  2. Here’s a comment that was sent to my email.
    This is a great read! Thanks for sharing. You are addressing my major concern with a lot of traditional primary research. To add one additional element to the argument, the more expertise people have, the more they tend to make choices automatically without knowledge of the subtle cues that they have learned. Herb Simon did some of the pioneering work here and others have followed it for a long time. My biggest concern is over patient allocation models and their use in quantifying the potential of a new therapy. As prescribers use a therapy with various patient types, it is likely they are learning underlying patterns of use and effectiveness that they will just not be able to articulate, probably because the patterns themselves are too complex. To ask someone based upon a PI or clinical trial information about how they will use a new therapy seems like a crap shoot as to what will actually happen in practice.

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