Everybody will be doing behavioural economics in qual

Do you see what I did there?

Social norming in action - that clever Obama chap took advice from BE experts

The title’s speculative, but no more so than the communication to the American public by Barack Obama’s team two weeks before the 2008 Presidential Election, to get the vote out: “A Record Turnout Is Expected.” The Obama campaign realised that, at that stage in the campaign, detailed messages would not get through. But Obama could still affect people’s motivation to vote by getting across one simple thing: most other people would be doing it. This wasn’t some inspired guess, it was done on the advice of America’s leading behavioural economists. It worked because of what they call the social norming effect. The Obama turn-out example has become a classic of behavioural economics (BE) and shows the scale of impact that BE insights can make.  I’m raking it up again now because I’m celebrating the latest edition of the AQR’s excellent indepth (AQR indepth site) booklet, Behaviour Economics: Out Of The Box. If you’re in the AQR, please read it; if you’re not, ask someone who is.

indepth: beg, borrow and steal it. Not this one, the new one. And don't actally steal it please.

The indepth booklet is a great starting point for people just waking up to this and actually moves things forward for those of us who have been thinking about this too. Crawford Hollingworth, Sarah Davies and Wendy Gordon have done a great service to qualitative research with these punchy articles, which set out what the fuss over BE is all about, why we in qual can’t ignore it and, crucially, some tips on how to use BE insights and approaches in qual practice.

I particularly like the table of BE concepts (heuristics, discounting the future, anchors etc), which distils nicely a lot of verbiage from the seminal BE texts. [I recommend, by the way, all qualitative researchers get around to reading, sooner rather than later, Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, Predictably Irrational by Ariely and anything by Daniel Kahneman or Jonah Lehrer (I’m just finishing Lehrer’s The Decisive Moment right now). They are all very accessible and aimed at the general reader.]

What I am especially grateful for is Wendy Gordon’s practical tips on how qual researchers might approach briefs differently, in the post-BE place qual research now inhabits. As she puts it, groups on their own will not cut it when we’re talking about understanding consideration sets, purchase intentions, switching brands, understanding brand choice, customer journeys and a host of other core areas for qual research. As ever, we need to triangulate using multiple methods and we need to be more experimental.

A mind-shaped super-structure

But as guest editor Ken Parker says – and those in May’s inaugural AQR training session on BE noted – haven’t we been onto this for some time in qual? Well yes, we have. We have been zooming in on analysing behaviours where we recognise the client needs a behaviourally-driven answer; and since qual began we have been rejecting reportage in favour of deeper interpretation of what is really going below the rational radar. He asks, is BE just a new framework to drive our approach and analysis?

Well, yes, in my view it is – but don’t under-estimate what it is to now have that framework. It could be a game-changer for qual. The framework does not just provide a language to better describe and justify what we do in qual, it also embodies established knowledge about human behaviour and how to influence it. It’s got vast practical applications for our clients and many are either already using this stuff or looking for help in doing so.

Choice architecture: I'll have the second cheapest one please

The BE revolution is happening smack in the middle of qual research territory – it’s about why people do things and how organisations can influence them. If we’re not part of it, we could be severely marginalised by it. The good news, we are ideally placed to be a big part of it: we’ve known all along that human ‘irrationality’ is where it’s at, that what people say is just a clue towards the deeper truths of why they do what they do. This is not a cultural shift for us. It is a great opportunity. Our place is at the coal face of both generating BE insights and applying them.

We’ve been doing some of this for years. Anyone who has done a deprivation test has been using a BE approach; anyone who has helped tweak advertising copy has been influenced by linguistic anchors and heuristics, probably without thinking of it in those terms. But BE gives us a structure and a language for what we have been doing. This will help us a lot in explaining what we do. It is also a challenge to us to be truly systematic in our analysis, without losing our knack for “whole brain” thinking.

A qual researcher faces a big choice. At this stage, she needs to listen to both her automatic and reflective system. And start running.

The acquisition of language in early humans put a rocket under human evolution. BE can do this for qual researchers: it really has the potential to make us more effective and have more direct impacts on our clients. We can be the homo sapiens here, surging ahead through learning and adapting the new tools. There is another alternative though, if we don’t grasp this: an increasingly bleak Neanderthal-like future, using the same old tools with diminishing returns.

Two things to take away from this if you’re a qual researcher grappling with BE:
1. There is a really useful body of knowledge out there about human behaviour and how we think, in accessible form – at the very least, let’s make more use of that.
2. There are some really useful terms and concepts BE writings have pushed into currency. Even if we don’t use them with all our clients, some already know and use them – we need to be ahead of the game on this.

And a final salutary thought: there is a place at the behavioural insights table for qualitative researchers, perhaps several places. But we need to turn up.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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