Chater is a cognitive psychology professor at Warwick Business School and runs a decision science consultancy. What he says has major implications for our work and how we describe it. Because your participants and respondents don’t have any hidden depths either.

The improvising mind

Chater takes a hammer to many of our cherished illusions, one of which is that our minds have depth, and that our beliefs, memories or preferences are things that exist and can be surfaced or interrogated. This error litters our professional conversations. We’re trying to unearth some new insights. We need to do a deep dive. What are their underlying beliefs about skin cream, broadband, or charitable giving?

Nonsense, says Professor Chater. There’s nothing beneath. Unconscious thought or underlying beliefs are natural but inaccurate metaphors. Chater’s thesis, backed by impressively marshalled evidence from experimental psychology, is that we literally make it up as we go along. When we express a preference or a view, we are improvising a story in the moment, to suit a particular context.

Intuitively, we know this. Imagine being asked to account for a specific behaviour. You don’t go somewhere inside your head and consult an oracle. You stumble around for a while and assemble a vaguely coherent sounding story based on the context and what you infer might be expected of you.

Of course, your story has to be assembled from something. There is an infrastructure of neurons fizzing and fusing. They lay down different patterns based on our experience and perceptions. But the story isn’t coming from somewhere. It’s rather like a musician playing freeform: there are a bag of notes and conventions, being reassembled in the moment.

Selective attention

So, we make it up as we go along. Secondly, we make it up based on what we are being told to pay attention to. Many of you will have seen the famous selective attention basketball game experiment. If you haven’t, it’s genuinely worth three minutes of your time.

As researchers, you’ll know that the answers people give you are very dependent on the questions you ask or the context you ask them in. We have to be aware that we run this risk every time we invite people to a place called a viewing studio. If you’re not careful, you can end up in a hall of mirrors. You set up an environment where people behave in a particular socially sanctioned way, inform them that others are watching them, tell them to pay attention to something in a way they wouldn’t normally do, ask loaded questions about what they think and report back the stories they make up, explaining that you’ve surfaced some underlying attitudes.

The implications

Don’t panic: Let’s think about what we do and how we talk about it.

What we do
It turns out Chater is a bit of a fan of qualitative research: “meaningful, rich interactions are very important.” He’s just cautionary about how you use and interpret it, on the basis that we’re poor witnesses to our behaviour, which good quallies know and tend to compensate for. So watch out for the following.

Avoid the general
One of the things he calls out is to avoid the general question in favour of specific examples of actual behaviour, ideally recorded or noted in the moment.

Be careful with "why?"
The "why did you.." question is most prone to improvised stories that show you off in the best light.

Prescribe a task or experiment
If you set up a task or experiment for someone in advance, at least you’re controlling some of the conditions and enabling them to reflect on something rather than just assemble whatever scraps are available to their brains at 8.45 on a Wednesday evening.

Use prototypes
Push yourself and your client to develop rough examples of ideas and products rather than play with words and images.

Go where they make the decisions
If context is all, as Chater suggests, get to the home, the workplace, the local cafe, whether physically or digitally. This is more achievable than ever, and where the best mobile ethnography tools and apps can come into their own.

How we describe what we do
Stop digging, mining, sifting and surfacing. You’re not going to reveal what people ‘really think’, as there’s nothing to reveal. You’re a contemporary researcher, not a landfill operative.

Qualitative research can create a space where people offer interesting stories about their behaviour. Your job is to detect the patterns in these stories. For existing products or services, what kinds of stories do people tell themselves about how they behave and what they believe? For a new product or service, what story are they going to tell themselves about this? These stories are fantastic material for communicators and strategists as they figure out the role of what they’ve made in people’s lives.