In the September issue of Research World an article was published by Lawrence Spero on ‘System 1’ decision making and how online surveys can utilise this instinctive response for better data. It caused a stir with some of our readers. We’ve now published the article online to provide those readers with a space to discuss the piece. 

Lawrence Spero

“Is George Clooney handsome?” “Which of the following video games do you intend on buying in the next month?” “Is Beyoncé gorgeous?”

The very best answers to these types of questions come as a result of instant mental reflexes without delayed ‘System 2’ contemplation (Kahneman, 2011). This is a matter of scientific fact based on the biochemistry of the brain.

There is much in life that is automatic, like breathing. Making rapid-fire decisions can be automatic when responding to questions that have instant ‘tug,’ or emotional appeal. Such reflexes of the mind occur all the time and control many actions that people pursue.

There are many daily questions that require little or no thought based on what the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls ‘System 1’ thinking (Kahneman, 2011). The best answers to these decisions, of the sort described above, can deliver insights of tremendous value to global executives and market researchers – if the answers take seriously the biochemistry of dopamine activity.

Unfortunately, the science of dopamine response – which implies that the brain’s focus on survey questions is limited in duration and focus – is missing in the majority of online market research today.

A ‘nano-survey’ is a very short survey (3-7 questions) that draws on how the brain responds to the type of ‘tug’ questions referred to earlier: “Are you hungry?” “Do you have enough food for the week?” “Are you short of money each month to buy food?” These tug questions are readily answered anywhere across the web-enabled world – especially if they are displayed on a full-page white screen (a full-screen URL, not a pop-up); they provide an instant snapshot of issues immediately relevant in the locale of the respondent. The approach can apply ‘low latency’ (ie, fast exposure) to ensure that anyone in the world with access to a web-enabled device has a relatively equal chance of being exposed to the nano-survey. The ‘unintentional’ or abrupt nature of nano-surveys, plus the brevity of nano-survey questions, yields more reflexive ‘System 1’ responses.

Perhaps most fascinating – and differentiating from traditional market research online using stratified panel respondents – aspect is that this method taps into the real-time relative relevancy of these questions to the human brain. If a higher fraction of everyday internet users in, say, the United Kingdom, expresses greater interest in a nano-survey about perceived security concerns resulting from dramatic ‘long-tail’ events (ie, the response rate is significantly higher following a serious flu outbreak or a terrorist strike) one week vs. the next, then public health or security personnel should pay heed. Relevancy becomes powerful when you have established norms associated with response rates and you see a significant change; this is an indicator of passion in the subject. So, if video game option B is the preferred choice in an A/B test, and you can add to the insight that one sees a huge jump in response rates of males versus the male norm, then you are adding a ‘relevancy of topic’ score to your data (ie, more males were passionate about the topic given the sampling time frame).

If this vision can be achieved, respondents answer based on the well-documented theory of leverage salience (Groves et al., 2000). The more people feel interested in or connected to a topic, the more they are likely to engage. This is, in my view, the purest reason for engagement with or answering any kind of survey, since respondents are not motivated by incentives but by the issue itself. The power and data purity of this methodology online rises dramatically if, unlike on polls on news-content sites such as CNN, respondents cannot bias the results by mounting e-mail or social media campaigns and thereby directing friends to the polling site, because they will not know what website to direct them to. That is, in an ideal formulation, the web sites upon which the surveys sit – reaching the potential respondent after he or she types in a non-trademarked ‘nonsense’ domain on the URL, or direct navigation bar, on any web-enabled device – are always changing. Under this approach, the respondent base is purely randomised and not arbitrarily split by age, sex or other researcher-defined cells.

My own experience in educating doctors supports the view that the shorter survey is often better than the longer, delayed contemplation. For example, I once had 200 medical students rapidly answer all questions to an exam, collected the answers and then had the students spend as much time as they wanted on the same exam questions, revising their answers accordingly. All students did better the first time. This concept also resonates with writers labouring over book publication who slowly learn to ‘trust first drafts.’

Are the short, snappy answers to these nano-surveys meaningful? Yes, because the brain reflexively comes up with the right answer. Reflex answers – what the writer Malcolm Gladwell (2005) has popularized as the ‘blink’ – can be more informative than long, even contemplative, responses where contradictory thoughts inevitably intervene. The brain operates on reflexes. It is largely a conglomerate of reflex neural assemblies that work rapidly and automatically, but are slowly influenced by thoughts and events. For example, the ability to walk depends on many nerve-muscle factors but also depends on the amount of brain dopamine, which is lost in Parkinson’s disease where the patients walk and think slowly (Hornykiewicz, 2008).

Just as important, people are impatient in the present era of the internet. Answering a survey via a banner ad has become increasingly rare and will perhaps even expire altogether, if for no other reason than ‘banner blindness,’ the tendency of the eye to ignore the tops or sides of web pages where survey icons may sit. A recent study by Infolinks found that today, 86% of web users experience ‘banner blindness’ (Adotas, 2013). A web page that takes more than two seconds to render on the screen is typically skipped (Heitzman, 2011). (This is, naturally, affected by the nature of the internet connection and activity, which is improving readily around the world.) Speed, or low latency, is the ‘new normal’ for capturing the best data that derives from online questions, answers and information flow. Although a typical reaction time for most people is about one-fifth of a second (200 milliseconds), neural cell to neural cell transmission in the brain is intensely fast, with only half a millisecond delay between neurons (Katz and Miledi, 1965; Soviet Encyclopedia, 1970-1979). In the case of a startle reflex, the time taken for a sound to go from the ear to the brain is about 10 milliseconds (Davis et al., 1982). The blink reflex from the instant something touches the cornea of the eye to the moment of the blink is about 100 milliseconds.

Today, low latency is critical in computing network efficiency – and in survey response – particularly where real time (ie, nearly instantaneous) response is required for clients in macro-finance, global corporations or international security. Hence the enormous potential of nano-survey responses from every web-enabled region of the world.

Lawrence Spero is professor of pharmacology (retired) from the University of Toronto and former director of both Educational Computing and the Bell University Health Communications Lab. He is an unpaid advisor to the RIWI Corporation.