Kyle Nel

Daniel Kahneman’s fantastic book Thinking, Fast and Slow proves beyond question that most of our decision making happens behind the cognitive curtain. For those few people out there who have yet to read this seminal book: System 1 is what most people would call the unconscious. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and effortless (e.g. someone throws you a ball and you instinctively catch it—no velocity and trajectory calculations, you just catch it). System 2 is what is considered by most to be “thinking.” It is slow, deliberate, hard and time consuming (e.g. doing calculus). Why then are the vast majority of tools that I have access to, and get pitched on a daily basis, entirely focused on asking people what they think? The answer stems from the following 4 problems:

  • Legacy of asking:  Our industry was built on the back of the survey. As a result, so much of the marketing research zeitgeist is around the same format—asking questions and getting answers…no matter how silly the question.
  • It’s easy to ask:  Asking is easy. We can ask a question and we can get a response. We can also do fun statistics, make charts and graphs and presentations with the results. It looks very official and definitive, and it is just so easy.
  • System 2 can be easily understood by System 2:  The rational, cognitive mind projects rationality to the world—that is its job, the rub here is that most of the things we do are not determined by the rational cognitive System 2 but by the emotional System 1. Decision makers and corporate executives love to debate, weigh and discuss alternatives strategies and options. They like to make rational decisions (as they should) and so they assume that the people buying their products and services are just a deliberate and diligent in their own decision making.
  • MR buyers/suppliers are comfortable:  I joke around that when I talk about innovation I don’t mean “Barbie now with hat.” What I mean by that is that innovation does not merely change the window dressing, add a hat or accessories to an existing product. The problem with that kind of true outside-the-proverbial-box innovation is that it is not only hard, but it is also very uncomfortable. We have to become comfortable with the discomfort of the experimental to find true innovation and understanding.

These issues alone would be enough to call in to question much of the decision-making that we do based on what people say—even if people were always truthful in their responses. We all know that people are not always truthful, as this great clip from a recent Jimmy Kimmel Live show(watch link below) proves. The JKL show had recorded interviews just hours before the 2nd US Presidential debate was to take place. Passersby were asked what they thought of last night’s debate (remember: there was no debate the previous night). Check out their responses and see if you don’t get a sick feeling in your stomach thinking about how much stock your organisation has placed in asking people stuff and expecting that these people can:

  • Tell you what you want to know (e.g. why they made that choice, which they cant always do)
  • Always tell the truth (and they don’t)

So, what do we do now? There are a few system 1 tools now that are starting to see the light of day. Neuroscience, behavioural economics, etc. are all going to be pillars of the new MR. That being said, as an industry, we still have yet to scratch the surface of what can be done with System 1.

As a buyer of research, my plea to the suppliers of research is to focus more on developing these System 1 tools. As the marketplace becomes increasingly more crowded and competitive we desperately need them.

 Kyle Nel is Head of International and Multicultural Research for Lowe’s Home Improvement in USA