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At a recent research conference, I listened to Phyllis McFarlane, Managing Director of the international market research agency GfK NOP speak of the growing need for a change in approach to research. The argument was clear – “it is time to move away from the stale, outdated assumption of human beings as rational decision makers. Indeed, we have learnt as researchers that the theory of rationality does not always hold – under certain circumstances, such as intense pressure or a lack of information, respondents can be prone to making unconscious, irrational decisions.”

Kyle Cockett Independent Consultants Group Blog

Well, yeah! Have been saying this for about thirty years, give or take a decade! Trouble is, everyone now thinks that Behavioural Economics is the solution…no-one seems to consider that experiencing and mapping the emotional, instinctive, irrational parts of yourself or your informants might be an important route to more authentic, in-depth results. And I don’t mean neuroscience’s mapping. The trouble with finding out which parts of the brain light up when you see the brand is that you still don’t know what that means.

Look at the featured image of a young woman seeing the reflection of both herself and beside her, her missing boyfriend, at a military memorial. Who has not been touched by the experience of the presence of a lost loved one in certain circumstances – and how it alters our view of the world in those moments?

We have come up with a way of bringing more of the emotional palette into our studies. We call this technique Coached Self Observation. In it respondents are coached in observing themselves and capturing their feelings, thoughts & associations together with their impulses to action. It takes half a day for this session, so that during the coaching people have a chance to practice their new skills. The facilitators can then build on what is useful and redirect or further coach unhelpful responses. Once people have been coached in this way they can keep a much more useful record or diary of their experiences than before. The diary contains the emotional as well as the event palette.

The truth is that like water to fish, many of our actions are invisible to us without creating something of an ‘Observer Part’ within the self. That’s because 90% of life is lived driven by what Kahneman calls ‘System 1’ thinking, automatic, instinctive, practiced, learned responses. You can get an immediate experience of System 1 thinking in any conversation: notice that you don’t really have to think about what to say next. A reply, response or answer is usually on the tip of your tongue, without thinking. However if I ask you what is the product of 16 and 24, you must engage System 2 to answer this. You need to engage in Step by Step application of the rules of multiplication and hold elements of the answer in your memory as you move towards the final number. Compared to System 1 thinking, this System 2 thinking is hard work. Therefore we avoid it as much as possible (or most of us do!), and apply the rule of ‘Least Effort’.

Just in case you’re addicted to the rule of Least Effort, the answer is 384.

In market research the rule of ‘Least Effort’ is applied all too often. It is the kind of effort that simply reports ‘quotes’ of respondents in reply to questions – and offers these quotes as the answers to client’s briefs. Never mind that the questions may have absolutely no relevance to the respondents’ real lives!

If you would like a pdf of this post, complete with the touching image: download it here: