The Question-Behaviour Effect How Research Can Drive Behaviour

By James McNeilis, B2B International

Almost 30 years ago, young Joe was asked if he was planning to vote in an upcoming election. Many others were asked the same question. The results were surprising. Those who were asked if they were going to vote were significantly more likely to do so than the rest of the population. Simply asking an intention question appeared to drive behaviour (Greenwald, Carnot, Beach, & Young, 1987).

This phenomenon is known as the Question-Behaviour Effect. Asking a question about future behaviour influences the performance of that future behaviour (Morwitz & Fitzsimons, 2004).

If asking a question influences future behaviour, the question-behaviour effect must be considered in market research. In this article, we consider the question-behaviour effect in terms of the Net Promoter Score (Reichheld, 2003). The Net Promotor Score asks: How likely are you to recommend our company to a friend or a colleague?. Participants are then put into one of three categories:

  1. Promoters – participants who are likely to recommend the company.
  2. Passives – participants who are neither likely nor unlikely to recommend the company.
  3. Detractors – participants who are likely to share negative opinions about the company.

How Does The Question-Behaviour Effect Work?

Participants in market research have already been shown to change their behaviours after being asked questions about their purchase intent (Morwitz, Johnson, & Schmittlein, 1993). In this research, participants in an experimental group were asked questions about their intent to buy a high-ticket item (an automobile), a mid-ticket item (a computer), and low-ticket items (household goods). These participants were significantly more likely to purchase these items in the next six months than those participants in the control group. Simply asking participants about their intent to purchase increased the likelihood that they would purchase these items in the near future. Taking this into account, it is highly probable that the Net Promoter Question will also influence participants’ behaviour.

To determine how the Net Promoter Question will influence the behaviour of participants in market research, we must understand how asking questions influences attitudes that drive behaviour. There are two main theories that explain how the question-behaviour effect influences behaviour:

  1. Increasing the accessibility of attitudes. A key consequence of answering a question is that attitudes become more accessible in our minds (Morwitz et al., 1993). The accessibility of attitudes has been shown to influence our attitude consistent behaviour (Fazio, Powell, & Williams, 1989). For example, Morwitz & Fitzsimons (2004) identified that participants asked about their intent to purchase a bar of chocolate were more likely to purchase a brand they held positive attitudes towards over a brand they held negative attitudes towards.
  1. Increasing the accessibility of a label. In this sense, a label refers to the storage of an item in memory. For example, when attempting to remember the name of someone, we search our memory for the label ‘Joe Smith’. The more frequently we search for an item the more accessible it becomes (e.g., Karpicke & Roediger, 2007). Simply, this theory states that the question makes us think about performing the behaviour, which makes us more likely to perform the behaviour in future (Morwitz et al., 1993; Morwitz & Fitzsimons, 2004).

What Are The Implications For The Net Promoter Score?

Anecdotal evidence appears to show that Promoters who are asked the Net Promoter Question will be more likely to recommend the company in future. Promoters hold positive attitudes towards the company and accessibility of these attitudes will increase by asking the Net Promoter Question (Morwitz et al., 1993). With accessible attitudes, Promoters will be more likely to engage in attitude-consistent behaviour and recommend the company to friends or colleagues (Fazio et al., 1989); and these Promoters are likely to recommend the company long after the research has been completed, as positive question-behaviour effects can last up to six months after the question is asked (Spangenberg, 1997). Accordingly, the Net Promoter Question can positively influence participants’ behaviour!

However, there is a big Detractor-shaped elephant in the room. Detractors hold negative attitudes towards the company (Reichheld, 2003), and the accessibility of these negative attitudes will increase following the Net Promoter Question! Fortunately, increasing the accessibility of attitudes has a greater effect on participants with positive attitudes (Morwitz & Fitzsimons, 2004); and increasing the accessibility of the brand’s label has a further positive effect on the future behaviour of Detractors. Accordingly, the Net Promoter Question has a net positive-effect on behaviour and leaves participants of customer loyalty surveys motivated to recommend the company to friends, family, and colleagues!

B2B International is the largest specialist business to business market research agency in the world. It has offices covering Europe, North America and Asia and specializes in developing bespoke market research solutions for global clients, including 600 of the world’s largest 1,500 companies among its client base.

Author: James McNeilis,

PR contact: Daniel Mullins, Marketing Manager