Behavioural Economics for Dummies


It was a drizzly day in Greater Manchester when I decided that I was going to pursue a degree in History (I’m pretty sure the late 90s classic film Anastasia had a lot to answer for). I loved my degree, and I took the opportunity to learn as many things as I physically could. Everything linked together, in quite a delicious fashion, but after writing two dissertations about Soviet film and 1980s American media, I was ready to apply my skills to something more practical. But where to go?

My route into market research wasn’t planned, by any means. I was looking for a job in a field related to my Year in Industry experience, which was in communications. So, when Trinity McQueen needed someone to come in and help for a few days, checking data and proofing reports, I sent in my CV and worked every hour they had going, fitting it in with my other part-time job and being as flexible as possible – which turns out to be a key trait for a quallie! I data checked reports, wrote specs, but found my calling when I viewed some focus groups. When the opportunity came up to apply for a permanent position, it was a no-brainer.

Since starting at Trinity McQueen as a Research Analyst last September, my life has improved immeasurably. I’m learning new skills, developing existing ones, and generally looking forward to embarking on my career as a researcher. The only downside? It now takes me three times as long to do my weekly shop. I loved my new job as an analyst and I couldn’t leave it at the office. I found myself trying to understand retailer decisions at every step, and assessing my choices as ‘a consumer’, rather than just putting stuff in my trolley.

Indeed, this realisation threw me into a somewhat existential crisis – why do I do a shop weekly? Surely it would make more sense (for my two-person household) to do smaller, more frequent shops? What does value mean to me? What’s my personal customer decision journey? I was trying to analyse myself the way I was starting to research. Paralysed by choice and overwhelmed by information, piling questions on answers on questions…

So, what has this got to do with Behavioural Economics?

When I started at Trinity, I had a vague idea of what behavioural economics meant but didn’t understand how to apply it. I learn by doing. I always have done, but how could I just do behavioural economics? Those two words sent shivers of fear down my spine. I have a BA in History, an MA in scriptwriting! I haven’t studied science since I was 16! What was I supposed to be able to contribute in a conversation about psychology? If you follow the blog, you’ll remember a post on imposter syndrome. Boy was I feeling that.

About three months into my new role as a researcher, and still somewhat struggling to believe that I was up to the job, I realised something as I threw a bag of frozen peas into my shopping trolley. I’d come to the end of my shop and I was getting bored, I wanted to get home and eat, and frozen peas aren’t exciting. I picked up the pack I usually get – and then it hit me.

Watching myself go around the supermarket was a sort of ‘trying out’ of behavioural economics.

My choice of ketchup wasn’t rational – it was my default (branded, the same pack size every time, non-negotiable). My free-range egg choice was set in the frame of animal welfare, despite me not knowing much beyond the carton packaging. I was far more susceptible to multi-buys than I thought, and really bad at checking them to see how much money I was actually ‘saving’. I don’t think twice about spending £4 on speciality cheese when I’m paying with my debit card, but I balk at the thought of parting with a physical fiver.

Hooray, I was doing it! By looking at my own behaviour as a consumer, I’d crossed the line from being a History grad who works in research to being a Researcher, who happens to have a History degree. Success!

I live by the idea that learning is fun, and you should keep doing it for as long as you can. Take jobs that terrify you and learn to be good at them. That’s the main thing I want to get across, anyway. The other point would be, is that it’s good to remember that we are all also consumers. As much as we are objective, experienced researchers, we all need to eat/dress ourselves/use the bank/live! Being aware of our own biases makes us better researchers, which is only a good thing.

For anyone considering a career in research, who might not necessarily have the ‘hard skills’ you might think you need, you’ll be amazed at how much of your life so far has been applicable to research. Use yourself as a guinea pig. If you find yourself intellectualising your shopping trolley, Amazon wishlist or Love Island, there’s maybe more of a researcher in you than you realise… 

Holly Collins, Research Analyst

Katie Grundy