Why Do We Bother Asking Questions Anyway?

By Colin Strong

Behavioural Science is now the subject of vast discussion and activity within the research industry. The opportunity to apply the large amount of academic work in this area to solve commercial and public sector challenges is being realised.

The popular conception of this emerging discipline draws on behavioural economics as a means of explaining human behaviour. Implicit within this is the claim that human decision makers have little or no access to the processes underlying their choices. The notion that self-reporting could be misleading was presented thirty years ago by Nisbett and Wilson (1977). They argued that people have “little or no introspective access” to their cognitive processes. Their case was based on a wide-ranging review of evidence indicating that people cannot correctly report on the cognitive processes underlying judgment, choice, inference, and problem solving.

This clearly creates a dilemma for market research as the industry’s methods typically rely on self-report. There’s an assumption that we have access to our inner selves. As the awareness of Behavioural Science grows, there is growing alarm that the value of introspective methods of market research could be a mistake. This would mean that we can’t rely on surveys and focus groups to understand human behaviour and need to turn instead to observed behaviour to derive consumer insights.

However, it isn’t necessarily as binary a question as this. There’s still good reasons to ask people questions. It’s too simplistic to assume that we aren’t able to self-report anything of value. As many philosophers and social scientists point out, our everyday personal experience tells us that this isn’t true. We’re able to account for many of our behaviours and decide what we want to do in a perfectly sensible way. The challenge is to understand the qualifications and boundaries of the different techniques for understanding human behaviour.

Resultantly, there are five main reasons why asking questions remains an important activity to understand human behaviour:

1. Academic research indicates that we are often reliable witnesses of much of our lives

Market research has always known and respected of the limits of this. Of course for certain choices in certain contexts we aren’t reliable witnesses of the determinants of our behaviour. But at other times we appear to be very good at determining our behaviour. Determining what works in which context is essential going forward.

2. Sometimes we need to know how consumers feel and what they believe

There is no sensible alternative in these instances to asking questions. Some of the most important social outcomes and predictors are internal states, such as emotions, knowledge, expectations, and opinions. Internal states exist only inside people’s heads, and sometimes the only way to learn about internal states is to ask. We might eventually be able to derive that a customer was unhappy about their recent experience by observing the way in which they stop spending money and take their business elsewhere. But it may be quicker, easier and more profitable to simply ask them.

3. All approaches have their limitations

Alternatives to asking questions are no exception. Observation, for example, whilst highly useful also suffers from known pitfalls. For example, in the 1970’s and 80’s in-market testing was widely used for copy testing and new product testing. However, this fell out of favour for a number of reasons – it was expensive, difficult to execute, too slow and easy for competitors to disrupt your test or copy you. Even your own sales force could distort results of a new product test (by driving up sales) because they knew it was a test and they wanted a new product to sell. In-market testing was replaced by survey-based tools which had none of these weaknesses and were found to be just as accurate because they could be better controlled. Over time things moved away from a behavioural orientation to gain speed and cost. But these same issues have not changed.

4. Asking questions reflects a belief that how we think and feel shapes how we decide to act

We therefore need to ask questions to understand how consumers are likely to behave. The fact that we can derive huge amounts of insight from observational data is not disputed, but we do need to question what we are missing in an account of human behaviour that is derived from observation alone. If we aren’t careful, we are in danger of assuming that we have no internal life that shapes our behaviour. We need to ask if we believe humans to be simple creatures that are driven by learnt associations or individuals whose behaviour is determined by meaning and cultural context?

The answer is both. The point is that what we choose depends on the questions we are trying to answer. But to suggest that one model has legitimacy over-simplifies the complex reality of human behaviour.

5. Instances of poor questionnaire design doesn’t mean that asking questions is wrong

The principal of asking questions isn’t flawed simply because market research has sometimes asked the wrong questions in the past. The industry needs a better statement of the boundaries of when to ask questions, ensure that they are executed well and that we have better policing of this.

In conclusion…..

There are clearly limitations to asking questions:

  • We aren’t always good at recalling details of low involvement activity, particularly if this happened some time ago
  • Our ability to determine why we behave in certain ways is limited

Good market researchers have always known this and taken steps to adjust for these limitations.

Additionally, we now have unprecedented data available that offers granular information about often intimate behaviours in a very un-obstructive, longitudinal manner. Indeed, we can even derive new insights about consumers’ inner lives from examining the patterns in the data.

There’s an opportunity to include new forms of indirect questions and time pressured response techniques, cognitive load methods that allow us to track implicit attitudes and system 1 style processing. Much of these are not only validated techniques but, because we can include them in surveys, they allow us to develop scalable measures.

Overall this article calls for what every good researcher knows – we need to integrate data sources to arrive at solutions we can be confident about. If a consistent picture of a behaviour and the factors influencing it is obtained from more than one source and using more than one method, it increases confidence in the analysis. The real challenge for market research is to provide a coherent account of the conditions under which different tools are most useful and the means by which to integrate the findings of these different tools in meaningful ways.

By Colin Strong, Global Head of Behavioural Science, IPSOS