1. Conventional psychology with its obsession with measurement is a fundamentally dishonest endeavour, purporting to study human beings, there is little mention of key human concerns like power, love or money in many of its texts and these are primary drivers in our daily lives.

2. A lot of what appears to be ‘human nature’ comes from having to deal with a certain kind of world. If we change the rules of that world – in effect create a micro-culture – then people’s nature will change. If this is skillfully facilitated, honesty, ideas and innovative thoughts will be greatly enhanced. It is also possible to change culture by maximizing other emotional states or drivers: see Christopher Booker’s ‘Scared to Death’ a description of how fear is used to mobilise opinion in politics now that differences between parties are so small.

And be sure to check out the brilliant Adam Curtis in the Power of Nightmares:

We have seen this kind of strategy in action in recent years as the UK government sought to scare people into compliance with austerity. Unfortunately when you invoke powerful emotions like fear, it’s difficult to manage the outcomes. So unpopular was this strategy that at first it curbed spending and slowed the economy down and now with Brexit, it has been abandoned as the extent of people’s distaste for the government became clear. To put it in a sentence, if you have the media at your disposal you can change how people experience reality. This is the essential social truth upon which our commercial qualitative work is based.

3. There is a much closer relationship between the front of our minds and the back than is commonly supposed. Part of the skill and task in good qualitative work is to create conditions where the things in the back of the mind can come to the fore. My key ‘mental model’ for qualitative psychology is shown at the top of this post: the Moebius Strip is helpful because it suggests that a simple twist will change our perception and bring what was in the background to the fore, something we all experience on a daily basis as feelings, perceptions, values, beliefs, pop into our minds.

4. Of great importance in our work is that the foreground is what shows on the surface, while the real motivations and intentions play out from the background. It is our job to understand this interplay.

5. Our motivations live in our subjective experience and are very often things we’re reluctant to admit to others. Therefore, for qualitative practitioners, creating safe environments for sharing subjectivity is the most direct route to unmet needs, hopes, aspirations and fears. Without these safe, permissive environments you are unlikely to uncover much. This is the reason for our maxim, ‘People Before Products’; until you have the people there in their fullness, you will not find out much about their desires or fears.

6. Our ideas and thoughts possess much of the character and significance of the experiences that shaped them. This significance is buried within our subjectivity. Taking into consideration these beliefs determined by the past and standing outside of them is a vital part of creating new futures. In practice tools like ‘Laddering’ and descriptions of ‘first encounters’ play a key role in understanding the background to current behaviour.

7. The group of scientists and researchers who favour reductionism, either via essentialism or experimentalism – and these include all forms of segmentation, trait analysis and personality typologies – choose to ignore one vital piece of information; the presence of self-consciousness changes everything.

8. In short, self-consciousness, acts as the lens through which all of our behaviour – especially in front of others, but even in front of the internal judgment of our own conscience – is filtered. We will withhold aspects of ourselves that embarrass, shame, make us vulnerable, or that reveal less noble desires, much as a stammerer tries desperately to hide her stammer, a paunchy person his tummy or a short person his lack of height. Thus what we show to each other is entirely modified by what we think others might think of us. As Mark Earls suggests in the brilliant ‘Herd’ we are socially conditioned and socially determined to a much higher degree than is comfortable to admit. We continually suppress our Background Voice lest it should embarrass, reveal or humiliate us.

9. It was Freud’s genius to notice that this self-consciously driven withholding of information even extended to our own selves – we will hide from our own sight recognition of some of our motives and desires almost as much as from others. Nearly all of us collude in hiding (even from ourselves) our true motives, since many of these appear ‘dark’ (in the sense of selfish, illogical or a bit crazy). But we are aware at some level of these defensive, adaptive manoeuvres: as the whole industry of psychotherapy has shown, it is possible to mount a fruitful enquiry into the architecture of our wishes, hopes and fears.

10. People are poor at reporting or describing their experiences and the reasons for their behaviour as shown in many experiments. Experiences and memories need to accessed in a fashion that allows for a candid appraisal of interests and intentions.

11. People can often show you things that they can’t tell you.

12. Listening is a key activity in using qualitative psychology – but not the kind of listening you do while politely waiting for your turn to talk or ask the next question from the Topic Guide. We call our listening ‘listening for possibility’ and it is a central feature of this approach.

13. It is a massive relief to discover through sharing with others that we are not alone in being this way. These relief leads to an outpouring of candour including previously hidden motives and rich sources of insight.

14. Even the darkest motives can appear quite reasonable when discussed in the light.

15. To depart from the norm in any direction often seems dangerous and exposing – almost to become a deviant. Such conspicuousness is attended for most of us with feelings of embarrassment or shame, coupled with secret delight at our rebellion.

16. This is compounded by the overwhelming quantity of routine, repetition and adaptation to the norm in both our professional and personal lives making the alluring safety of the familiar irresistible. Many of us resign ourselves to building as safe a life as we can and avoid the challenge of the unknown because it seems too risky. Professionally too, even our most ‘experimental’ procedures quickly become routine, bureaucratic and repetitive. Kahneman has brilliantly captured this characteristic in his System 1.

17. However, when we create safety and permission in our qualitative explorations, virtually every participant  finds in the escape from the usual constraints an exhilarating relief. We call this adventure, ‘Abnorming’. It relies upon the creation of a micro-culture where the normal rules do not apply and creativity is encouraged and facilitated.

18. The absence of insightful studies of money – since it is the focus of so many of our dreams – is, in fact inexplicable and unhelpful. This gives consumer or market research an opportunity to make original, even profound, contributions since the role of markets, money and transactions is central in these projects.

19. If you ask people what really matters to them they will tend to focus on those things most acceptable to our conventions. But their conduct may not match these professed priorities. In uncovering the reasons behind these disparities, many people will not know where to start, or be afraid of revealing how self-regarding their true motives are. It needs a powerful invitation and a place of great safety for people to notice – and share – their own realities in these respects.

20. In an era where possessions and aspirations have become so central, consumer choices are one of the fundamental processes driving society. Whether they should be or not, these things are crucial to understanding our way of life – and are reflected in both local and national politics where choices are made about the distribution of resources, privileges and penalties to citizens. Politics, society and markets are all subject to and determined by our choices. Hence the study of how these come about is of value to us all.

With these 20 principles in mind we design and conduct our projects. If you would like to learn more about how to understand and use them – and develop both personally and professionally – they are taught in our Advanced Qualitative Practitioners Course, leading to an MRS Award. Details and dates are here: