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Standard economists think that inner consistency is a cornerstone of human rationality.

Behavioral economists think that observed inconsistencies of human action prove the failure of standard economics. And that these inconsistencies are part of our make up.

BE set out to teach us about the ways in which rational analysis of the reasons for choices were inadequate.

Both these analyses contain distortions born of generalisation which lead to errors. If we analyze the nature of human action in enough detail, we can clearly see that people may be aware of  inner inconsistency*.

Moreover, they may intentionally control it to some extent!

Put simply, although it may operate automatically, System One is not invisible or inaccessible to consciousness. It is largely a convenience that it works without conscious effort, but if we find the right method of inquiry it is not hard to unravel how System One heuristics operate and the intentionality that underpins every one of them. Some of that intentionality is assertive, other parts are defensive. Both may be conveniently held outside of awareness because they have ignoble, selfish or vulnerable elements.

System One operations contain what we think of in everyday language as habits or short cuts. On a daily basis they operate with little conscious effort. They may pass unnoticed in many events, as when we automatically adjust our step to surmount a kerb-stone or miss someone coming the other way along the pavement.

Yet all of them are learned behaviour. At some point in the past we created that short-cut or habit – and we did so to serve some purpose. That purpose may underlie the continuance of habitual behaviour, including choice of brands, goods or services, our ways of shopping and using products and our responses to marketing, whether or not the original purpose is relevant today.

It may be worthwhile to discover the way that a heuristic got created if we are to understand these unconscious relationships with brands and how to re-position or refresh them. That’s why we might want to explore this in a research project if we want to know what a brand means or could mean.

The most commonplace short-cut in shopping is surely the familiarity heuristic where we buy a product automatically because it has proven its worth or its consistency over time and we do not feel inclined to examine this habit. We would prefer to use our time for more interesting or rewarding activities. Nonetheless, we do change or abandon habitual products from time to time, much to the dismay of brand owners who see things like loyalty dropping away.

I often wonder if one of the reasons we throw away so much food is not because we are wasteful, but exactly the opposite- we are following efficiency routines established when our situation or perceptions were different. Now we buy it as an automatic response to an heuristic whose validity has evaporated in the light of new circumstances. I can see in my own bin that we buy green peppers every week and none of us has the faintest idea why! But if we spend a moment in reflection, it emerges that last year they were part of a repertoire dish that called for peppers which has since disappeared from our family routines, yet the heuristic remains.

I suspect that if we bothered to examine our heuristics a bit more frequently about a third of them would prove inappropriate – and that we are wasting a lot of time & money!

If a product or brand wishes to discover why it is losing loyalists then exploring what drew people to that brand in the first place is a vital piece of evidence in deciding how to refresh it. It can also give guidance on the all important context for that initial choice – in terms of whether it retains its relevance in today’s world. What is stored inside us about brands, Robert Heath calls ‘Embedded Brand Associations’ and nowhere near enough time is spent in today’s qualitative research in exploring these.

To explore these associations in more detail, we need to help people to recover their initial experiences that led to adoption. In the next post on Recovering Significance I will show how to do that.

* One method used to explore subjective experience is called the Phenomenological Inquiry and was first outlined by Husserl more than 100 years ago. Nowadays people are in too much of a hurry to attempt such careful explorations. They would rather collect a bunch of snaps from someone’s mobile phone or posts from their FB or Twitter account ‘in the moment’, forgetting all the while that impression management is the key driver of these posts. In other words people post, tweet, connect in order to further their own causes, be these inner needs (I want to feel I have lots of friends/ I want to look cool) or outer things, like companies, charities, causes or membership organisations that they wish to associate themselves with. The real question for qualitative researchers is not ‘what did they post on Facebook, Snapchat, Whats App or Twitter, but ‘what are they up to with these activities?’


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As a psychologist, psychotherapist and research practitioner of 40 years, I've had the benefit of the experiences of more than 100,000 people around the world. They've talked about their daily lives, hopes, fears, ambitions and needs. These experiences have helped me to contribute to innovations from Beds in Business and the Fast Track for airlines to television drama and online communities. Specialties:Large groups, facilitation, application of psychological theories to commercial issues