Being a massive fan of behavioural science, I originally intended to put together a piece about its pivotal role in understanding consumers. However, a quick Google search will show you many blogs and articles expressing a similar sentiment, typically pitting it against existing philosophies and methods. So, looking for a new angle, I got around to thinking about what the increasing prominence of behavioural science in market research means for the humble quantitative questionnaire as we know it. Will it be discarded in favour of behavioural methods? Is there any love for the humble survey?
Behavioural methods generate valuable data on how people think and feel through observing reactions, such as neural activity (via EEG and fMRIs) and reaction times beyond our control (via implicit association tests and affective priming tasks). These measures are arguably more representative than data collected from questionnaires as answers are not susceptible to (intentional and unintentional) manipulation by the respondents. While these methods show us a pure portrayal of what our internal states are, it doesn't provide reasons for why we are feeling/thinking that way. For example, we can pinpoint emotional responses throughout an advert with facial coding measurements but would not be able to explain the reason for these emotions. So, in order to prioritise behavioural methods or the questionnaire, it is important to understand what the question at hand is - do we want to know what people feel and think or why people feel and think that way?
As explained in 'Thinking Fast and Slow', the quintessential guide to behavioural science, we make decisions using a fast, non-conscious process (System 1) or a slow process dictated by reason (System 2). We primarily use System 1 to handle the thousands of decisions we need to make on a daily basis, which cannot be captured with questionnaires that require a certain level of introspection. This implies that questionnaires provide little insight into how we actually make decisions. However, it is important to remember that both System 1 and 2 can be used for any decision. The use of one over another is highly dependent on context. For example, choosing whether to get a chocolate bar can be a system 1 decision for one person but more likely to be a system 2 decision for someone on a diet. So, an understanding of both processes is equally important to provide well-rounded and informed insights.
Though impressed with the revolutionary thinking and methodologies of behavioural science, my opinion is that questionnaires will still be part and parcel of market research for years to come. So, the question is no longer about which method is superior but in what combination can we derive the best insights and solutions to our clients' problems.
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