The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Cracking our elusive System 1

To date researchers have had to work with what people say they feel but this could be a thing of the past. Now there is a potential way to measure human emotion.

System 1, System 2, implicit, framing, priming, anchoring… everyone’s talking about behavioural economics. Yet much of it is shrouded in a cloud of neuroscience jargon and academic references. In qualitative research, you can add in ’biometrics’, ’galvanic skin responses’ and such to the cornucopia of confusing language that litters the subject. Strip back to basics, however, and it’s easy to see why both researchers and increasingly their clients are interested in exploring it further.

Our subconscious System 1 brain is credited with being responsible for as much as 95% of our everyday decisionmaking. It is where our true feelings are experienced, without being filtered by our conscious thoughts. Our System 1 thinking often leaks out in our body language: our heart rate, facial expressions, eye movement, blood pressure, and our sweat regularly betray our deeper, more authentic experiences.

Understanding this side of our brain is the holy grail of market research. It’s the key to unlocking the best insights and giving us a clearer view of how humans work. The traditional questionnaire, which so dominated market research in the past, is simply incapable of tapping into this elusive system. All it can ask is what people say they feel, not what they truly feel.

So how do you measure it? While it would be handy if we could get participants to carry an 11-ton MRI scanner on their heads as they go about their daily lives, it’s not very practical. Even if we take the technology down to a manageable size, such as by using a skull cap that measures brainwaves, it still causes problems. It’s hard to make the same decisions you would normally make with a heavy piece of equipment on your head. Simply put, if it doesn’t feel natural, the data will be affected.

Enter galvanic skin response (GSR), which has scored the double whammy of providing reliable, accessible data while also being portable and non-intrusive. Once the two electrodes are attached to your non-dominant hand, you’ve already forgotten that they are there.

The wrist strap that collects the data is barely noticeable. It’s a simple, easy to use and cost-effective means of taking a look at what’s happening behind the scenes in a person’s subconscious.

GSR works because of a simple fact: our skin becomes a better conductor of electricity when stimuli occur that are physiologically and emotionally arousing. By measuring the electrical conductivity of our skin, we can detect when emotional engagement occurs. And if we can identify the stimuli that caused it, we’ve discovered something new.

Our GSR methodology is called Skin Deep. It measures two types of sweat glands: apocrine which helps us cool down and eccrine which is associated with psychological reactions.

These sweat glands are found in concentrated numbers on the palm of our hands and soles of our feet. It is thought that we have more sweat glands here for evolutionary reasons, as they allowed our ancestors to better grip things in times of danger.

You sometimes feel your hands sweat if you’re nervous, and this is essentially the same reaction that a GSR study measures, except for the fact that most stimuli under testing won’t cause your palms to sweat noticeably. Under the skin’s surface, however, the changing level of sweat is enough to increase the electrical conductivity of the skin (the amount it conducts/transmits electricity). Put simply, GSR enables researchers to measure a respondent’s physiological reaction even when they are not themselves aware of it.

Take its use in a focus group, for example. We recently asked a group of mums for their opinions on children’s toys, aiming to find out what was important to them when they were deciding what to buy. The focus group took the usual format, but we also hooked up each participant to a GSR sensor. This allowed us to overlay the physiological arousal data with what was being discussed to figure out how people felt about the subject. In this case, when the quality of materials used in toys came up, there was a spike in emotional engagement across the group. This consistent and significant change in emotional engagement suggested that this was an issue of importance to them and one worth exploring in more detail.

Similarly when we take respondents on accompanied shopping trips, the GSR data can help us discover what is and what isn’t working on the shelves. Engagement tends to peak around areas that are sensory or which stand out: the smell of the baby or laundry aisles will often trigger spikes, as does a well-positioned discount. Using this method, we can pick up on subtleties that can be easily overlooked in a study simply because participants don’t notice their reaction.

For robust insight, we never use these methodologies in isolation but as an overlay on to participants’ responses. That way we ensure both biometric and claimed responses are used to ‘triangulate’ the data points to get to a ‘true’ consumer response. Participants’ verbal feedback continues to be invaluable in gauging behaviour; what GSR data does is give a measure of the strength of that feeling — be that warm or cold. It helps us fill in the gaps between what participants say, and what they think and feel.

This methodology is currently just scratching the skin of what’s possible when it comes to better understanding, and perhaps, more importantly, predicting the shortcuts our subconscious brains use to navigate an increasingly noisy, busy world. As the technology develops, more and more biometrics and psychometrics will start to become practical to measure. But as an industry, we’re certainly at an exciting starting point from which we can explore and finally utilise that elusive System 1.

 

Rebecca Ironside
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2016

I would like to thank Anna Appleford, our qualitative research director, who has been enormously helpful in providing her insights, her perspective and her experience using galvanic skin response.