Knocked non-conscious: Joanna Chrzanowska’s AQR webinar

This is a webinar Joanna Chrzanowska of Genesis Consulting did for the AQR ( last month. It piqued my interest for at least two reasons. Firstly, it’s an illuminating trot through the roots of qualitative research and its relationship with ideas of the sub-conscious, unconscious and non-conscious. Secondly, it maps out Joanna’s take on where qual now sits on this, in the light of the break-through of the ideas of behavioural economics into mainstream business thinking.

She starts with the Freudian split of superego / ego / id, quoting Bannister’s wonderful description of this:

A maiden aunt and a sex-crazed monkey locked in mortal combat in a cellar, refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk.

Thinking Fast And Slow. Thanks to The Green Book Blog for this
Thinking Fast And Slow.
Thanks to The Green Book Blog for this

We have moved on since Freud’s ideas, even if they do still provide a useful metaphor. Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 now dominate discussion of how unconscious – or perhaps better to say non-conscious – factors play out in human behaviour. But in Chrzanowska’s view, behavioural economics, while giving intellectual weight to qual’s long-standing arguments against ‘rational decision-maker’ approaches, has actually “failed to light up the qual universe”. She asks why.

Kenrick and Griskevicius. Got to love a Lithuanian name, they often have the ring of a Roman provincial prefect about them. Kenrick though: less interesting
Kenrick and Griskevicius. Got to love a Lithuanian name, they often have the ring of a Roman provincial prefect about them.

She finds the answer, in part, in the book The Rational Animal by Kenrick and Griskevicius. If Kahneman et al punctured human self-importance by showing how error-prone and riven with innate biases we all are, it can be argued it left the job only partly done. Human behaviour was left looking just a bit too random for comfort. Personally I’m pretty comfortable with behaviour being a bit random, but I get the point – aren’t there deeper reasons why we make the mistakes we do, which may be the next step on from behavioural economics? It describes the processes of non-rationality, but perhaps is less focussed on why these processes lead us in the directions they do. The Rational Animal is an attempt to explain these in evolutionary terms:

Kendrick and Griskevicius posit seven “sub-selves” as an underpinning explanation for behaviours. These are a bit like core evolutionary human needs. The seven sub-selves they list are:

  • affiliation
  • self-protection
  • disease avoidance
  • status-seeking
  • kin care
  • mate acquisition
  • mate retention

Actions that at first look irrational or even stupid make sense, the authors contend, when seen as being done non-consciously in pursuit of one of these essentials of human thriving. We have a sub-self for each one, that concerns itself with that issue alone. A lot of of our moral dilemmas are really clashes between these sub-selves.

I know, I know, it's really serious
Paean to the unconscious: I know, I know, it’s really serious

Sub-selves are only one part of the non-conscious landscape, as Joanna points out. It also includes habits, emotions, cultural beliefs, heuristics (short-cuts), social cognition, implicit attitudes, stereotypes and automatic processing. And just as these factors in explaining human behaviour are buried deep below the surface, the qualitative researcher’s wrestling with them is usually just as hidden from our clients. Many remain blissfully unaware it is even going on; no wonder they sometimes ask why full analysis is really needed. It’s because there’s quite a lot to dig out and weigh up.

By the way, Joanna’s experience and wisdom on all matters qualitative has been an invaluable asset for the UK qual industry for many years. Pretty much any British qual researcher you meet will have done one of her courses at some time. She was one of the teachers on the AQR Foundation Course when I went on it back in 1998; and she’s trained me since on subjects as disparate as projective techniques and the use of online platforms, always accessibly and inspiringly. I’ve bigged it up before, but her Qualitative Mind site is a fantastic resource on qual, for practitioners and clients alike:

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.

One thought on “Knocked non-conscious: Joanna Chrzanowska’s AQR webinar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: