Ignorance is not bliss
The ground occupied by the "ask people what they think or feel and they will tell you" school is in retreat. Even in my earliest years doing qualitative research I wondered if groups reflected real life.
I became convinced that what other people would think of them if they did not offer a sensible explanation of their choices drove respondents" replies more than any other factor. Now neuroscience, behavioural economics and psychological research have all supported the idea that much more of our behaviour is under unconscious control than we thought.
How has the qualitative industry reacted to this news? Two main reactions: ignore it and carry on as usual, or jump on the Behavioural Economics bandwagon. The ignore it camp is by far the largest and backed up by an advertising industry devoted to persuading clients that consumers are responding to "messages" like claims and propositions in their marketing. There is very little evidence to support this.
What the evidence does support is the idea that the emotional content of advertising has an impact, even on an audience who are trying largely to ignore the ads. Thus for researchers, the ability to evoke and work with emotional responses is critical if they want accurate representations of consumers" worlds.
Psychotherapy has a hundred year tradition in creating environments where feelings and the unconscious may find the light. There is hope: both Robert Heath in Seducing the Subconscious and Dan Siegel in Mindsight have taken the trouble to map out these unconscious pathways and describe how we can get glimpses of them from our conscious mind.
As we saw from the enthusiastic attendance at the AQR day on Ideas from Psychotherapy in Market Research, there is great interest in these ideas and the techniques flowing from them. I encourage people to get going on learning and practicing them. We can support this by accreditation in which these techniques are taught. Just as therapists can accredit, why not quallies?
Surely our inventiveness as qualitative researchers is up to the task of studying, learning and adapting their models for our work? If not, I fear we will find it increasingly hard to justify our processes and clients will gradually beat a retreat from focus groups while being nice to us as they go.
Roy Langmaid FMRS
Managing Director, The Langmaid Practice
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, April 2014
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2014