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Behavioural insights in research: the shape of things to come?

It's been seven years since Kahneman published Thinking Fast and Slow, and there's no doubt that his ideas about why people behave the way they do have made a splash. His book has made topline almost 40 years of diverse, detailed academic research and become common knowledge google anything about behavioural economics and you're overwhelmed by people weighing in on what this means for the way we understand people. Clients have also joined the conversation it's becoming more and more com

Decision time

The story goes that consumers can’t articulate the drivers underlying their behaviour and that behavioural science insights and methods can provide answers that conventional research can’t. But despite all the noise about behavioural science, most clients still choose to research with qual and quant. And yet, papers continue to emerge insight industry. Who’s right? Is this the start of a revolution? Should we be abandoning old ways of working? Or would we find ourselves throwing away good practices in favour of something new and shiny?

Unsurprisingly, the subject continues to spark debate within the insight industry. Many researchers have fully embraced the likes of System 1 and System 2, and have applied the theory directly to the way they approach research (e.g. by embracing implicit and biometric measures that help to ‘get under the skin’ into their research toolkits). I certainly have.

But others have criticised behavioural science, suggesting it provides a sensationalised view of human nature and doesn’t give us anything new to work with. The truth probably lies somewhere in between...I might be biased, but here’s what I have to say:

1. A useful addition, rather than a replacement

The implications of behavioural science theory sometimes leave researchers feeling a bit confused. If people sometimes aren’t aware of why they do what they do, then how can we know we’re getting meaningful insights? Yes, it’s true that you can’t see System 1 in action in more conventional forms of research, but I don’t think this is cause for concern.

Systems 1 and 2 present a compelling case for changing our habits as researchers — they show that we should all be thinking a little more carefully about the order we ask questions in, the context in which we speak to people in, and the restrictions of asking questions without a hypothesis for what we might find.

Behavioural science can help support the work we do — it doesn’t need to represent a challenge. Solely focusing on people’s conscious thoughts, needs, and motivations means we miss important drivers of behaviour, but only considering behavioural tendencies neglects the role that personal identity and experiences play in shaping the lives people build. Our perceptions and decisions are shaped by our tendencies and the conscious world we live in. Bringing qualitative research and behavioural science insights together allows us to tap into both, and feed a set of mutually inclusive insights into the work that we do.

2. Behavioural science can bring rigour to qual recommendations and helps with the ‘so what?’

Ultimately our work as researchers is about creating meaningful results for clients — ideas that inspire, and recommendations that land. Our work is to help de-risk business decisions. And I believe that behavioural science is a tool that can help bridge the gap between research and practice.

People still level criticism at qualitative research for ‘small sample sizes’ etc., yet it embraces surprising occurrences, generative open-ended methods, and an in-depth understanding of people in the context of their lives. These are the things that make it powerful — but they also make the results hard to verify. Businesses often hunger for the reassurance that quant validation can provide to help support their decisions, which can sometimes lead to qual recommendations failing to win the confidence of the business. The beauty of behavioural science is the academic and wide-ranging nature of the evidence that sits behind the insights — they are often grounded in quant, and rigorous peerreviewed quant at that. Behavioural tendencies are just that: things that tend to happen in a predictable fashion (rather than rules of law). But what they provide us with is an increased likelihood of something taking place — and anything that can help to make our case and re-frame problems will make our work more actionable.

3. An understanding of behavioural science can lead to solutions that would never have been voiced

An understanding of behavioural science can help us go even further. The growing discipline of ‘behavioural design’ applies observations about people from experimental academic research to the traditional design thinking process — re-framing problems using a ‘behavioural lens’ and providing an evidence-based springboard for ideation. The behavioural science literature can contribute ideas for solutions based on interventions that have been demonstrated to lead to behaviour change in the past. It will never replace traditional approaches to user-centric design, but can help design smarter products and services that reduce the impact of our biases and use effective triggers to improve decision-making. And as this method becomes more widely used, more data will be available about what designs work and which do not in different contexts.

Conclusion

Behavioural science isn’t going away and is set to get more popular. The changing nature of the research industry towards a more strategic role means that having an understanding of not just what consumers do and want, but also what solutions are likely to work, can only make us more equipped to do our jobs. Ultimately our job is to help clients tackle their problems... and behavioural science represents another tool to help us do this.

 

Cathryn Rebak
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2018