The Psychology Behind In-The-Moment Market Research (Part I)

Q&A with Dr. Ali Goode, Partner at house51 and expert in behavioral economics and the psychology of learning and memory.Goode

Here at Dialsmith we’re all about being in-the-moment. Not so much in the “carpe diem” way, but more so as the market research methodology—seeing how our solutions and services help clients understand the in-the-moment perceptions, thoughts and feelings of their audiences and consumers. That’s why our “spidey sense” went nuts when we stumbled upon this keen Sumo Insight article by Dr. Ali Goode that delves into the psychology behind in-the-moment research and why it is a growing focus of market research. Some of the common themes and findings Dr. Goode hits on in his article are the similar to ones our Dialsmith team has presented at industry events as well as in discussions with clients and partners.

Given our shared interest in in-the-moment, we followed up with Dr. Goode to dive deeper on this topic and hear more about his personal experiences using in-the-moment market research. A lot of great detail in this chat so we’ve split it up into two parts. Here’s part one:

Q: In your article, you wrote about the challenges of getting research participants to communicate or record how they felt about things. Feelings are, indeed, very subjective and I suspect a common answer to, “How did you feel about that?” is, “I don’t know.” In your work, what techniques have worked best to get research participants to recall their feelings about something and be able to communicate those feelings in a useful way?

Dr. Goode: There are two issues in the question, firstly recalling how we felt, and secondly identifying why we feel.

We are actually notoriously poor at recalling how we felt about something in the past. We are, of course, not talking about big life events, as we know how we feel about those, but it’s the day-to-day mundane experiences that we, as researchers, are most interested in. Because the feelings we have are so compelling, what we are feeling right now can often taint or outweigh what we were feeling previously. So, when asked in research how we felt about something, responses are likely to be influenced by how we feel about it at the time we are asked, rather than the earlier time the question refers to.

This problem is demonstrated by one of the major effects of re-exposure. Merely by seeing something twice means we tend to like things more the second time than the first. This happens even if we don’t recall having seen it the first time. So when testing adverts, products, etc., re-exposing a participant to it, then asking how he/she felt about it could be problematic, as the participant will naturally like it more the second time he/she views it than the first.

“Merely by seeing something twice means we tend to like things more the second time than the first.” 

Another problem is that our opinions are constantly in a state of flux, as evidenced by the (UK) election result earlier this year. I’m certain people were genuine in reporting that they were not going to vote for Conservative candidates in opinion polls and could site reasons as to why they felt that way. However, on Election Day, maybe even in the polling booth, they genuinely believed that voting Conservative was the right thing to do; even though they had not reported it in any pre-election polling. This can likely be attributed, at least in part, to the cognitive miser effect, which finds that it takes an effort to make people change their minds. So, more often than not, they end up sticking with the default option.

In summary, often how we are feeling at the time we are being asked can taint how we think we felt in the past. Knowing this, it is better to interpret feelings in the con text of what is going on at the point of asking, rather than being a definitive answer to what he/she was feeling previously.

The second point is identifying why we feel. The way the mind works is that our “System 1” mind, or implicit mind, is a very efficient storage device. In fact, memory has been found to be part of many different brain structures. The only real purpose of this ‘implicit’ mind is to give us feelings and emotions about what may happen. In other words, how best to respond to events and situations that happen around us based on previous experience. This ‘what happens next’ function is considered as one of our brain’s key evolutionary purposes. However, to interact with the world efficiently we only need to have the feeling itself and not identify (attribute) that feeling to a specific event or point in time. Hence, why we feel the way we do is not always accessible to our conscious mind. So, when asked ‘how do you feel about X?’ The mind will instantly return an immediate ‘feeling’ about an issue, and this feeling can be reported. However why we feel that way can often be beyond our ability to report as we simply don’t store the associations in a way we can consciously access just the feeling itself.

“However why we feel that way can often be beyond our ability to report as we simply don’t store the associations in a way we can consciously access just the feeling itself.”

Technically, this feeling is what is called ‘unattributed’, meaning it is not linked to any specific event. This can lead to a problem for us, as researchers, as people can shy away from reporting the unattributed feelings as they are often associated with a lack of confidence. So, a research participant’s internal monologue can go along the lines of, “I know I feel that way, but don’t know why… so if I say why I feel I won’t be able to back it up… best not say.” This can lead to the ‘I Don’t Know’ response, which in fact is not I don’t know what I feel, but I’m not confident and can’t justify why I feel this way.

It is also worth noting that the usual response to this by researchers is to probe deeper, which can often compound the problem, as it will prompt people to try and recall a specific event in relation to the question (which they can’t). So, the participant may well just use a generic example and up-weight its importance or even just make up an generic example in line with their feeling.

An example of this actually happened to me recently. I went to get a prescription from my pharmacy inside the local Sainsbury’s supermarket. On the way to the counter, I was stopped by a ‘researcher’, who asked if I was aware that there was a dentist that had just opened in the store, and, “How did I feel about going to a dentist in the supermarket?” To me, it instantly felt really wrong, which I told her. She, of course, asked why, and I told her the honest answer, which was I didn’t really know. So, I wandered off and while doing my shopping introspected on why that might be the case. My best guess is that my dentist is next to my doctors, and perhaps that has formed an association in my implicit mind that the dentist is a serious medical establishment, which doesn’t fit in with my concept of Sainsbury’s–a place where I buy most of my FMCG’s. So, perhaps the feeling was that being in a supermarket would undermine the ‘medical seriousness’ that I intuitively associated with the dentist. I still don’t really know for sure but do acknowledge the irony that I was just fine visiting the pharmacy–a place where I go to get all of my serious medicines prescribed by my serious medical doctor!

Techniques to address this have often to do with priming respondents using some kind of external stimulus. Rather than asking, ‘How do you feel about…” We, as researchers, should prepare stimuli that cover the answers we might expect. This is because trying to give voice to feelings can be difficult. However, if we experience something that represents that feeling–because the question has primed it in us–then we will process it more fluently (since it was in our mind already, our mind has a head start in processing that representation). So, we experience this ‘fluent processing’ and our mind acknowledges that it is associated with the topic being asked.

Any stimulus can do this; be it verbal, visual, or pictorial, but the instant snap ‘yes that’s it’ response is most likely to be the best generalized association with the topic and is likely to be associated with the feelings. So, ‘in effect’ techniques that access ‘top of mind’ thoughts should be taken as being more important than perhaps thus far they have been.

That’s a lot to chew on from Dr. Goode, so we’ll cut off Part I of our chat there. Stay tuned for Part II…