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What Researchers Need to Know about Behavioural Science

If you discussed behavioural science with a market researcher ten years ago, chances are that they would have viewed the concept as a purely academic pursuit, or even know of it as something marketers would begin to implement in anger within their campaigns. Only a few would be able to identify the use it would in future market research.

Behavioural science has stretched to impact many areas of study, not only academic but commercial too, and it’s reach is only growing. Researchers would do well to take a note of this growing discipline along with its implications for the future of market research. But before we look to the future, we must understand it’s influence over current market research practices.

Behavioural Science in Brief

Human behaviour has been described as many things: irrational, unpredictable, emotionally-driven, etc. The study of human behaviour can be seen under many different names, cultural and social anthropology, psychology, sociology, and to a lesser extent cultural materialism and (new) historicism, human behaviour has been a fascination for centuries. Behavioural Science is a term that umbrellas all disciplines related to the study of human behaviour.

Behavioural science is a term that umbrellas all studies of human behaviour: psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. But increasingly, the insights from these studies are influencing market research methods and experiences. 

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Behavioural science is a term that umbrellas all studies of human behaviour: psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. But increasingly, the insights from these studies are influencing market research methods and experiences. 

As mentioned before, it is traditionally seen as more of an academic pursuit – with prominent figures like the Greek Philosophers, Freud, Higgins, etc. redefining and refining behavioural science with astounding innovations such as the Theory of Human Nature the discovery of psychological operating systems 1 (irrational, emotional decision making ruled by context) and 2 (rational, logical decision making ruled by facts), and the Regulatory Fit Theory. But that doesn’t mean that the insights their studies present don’t also have other, more commercial applications.

Commercially, behavioural science has influenced more than one marketing campaign and customer experience, with behavioural ‘nudges’ now implemented and experienced by everyone on a daily basis in all brand communications as standard. But are there elements of behavioural science that could be used in market research? Not to influence answers or insights - but to encourage research participation and the amount of detail participants put into answers to further inform the generation and actionability of insights.

Unconscious Biases and other Insights Influencing MRX

In market research, insight professionals are in the midst of tackling a big issue: participants don’t always do what they say they will – meaning there is a big perception gap that’s affecting the actionability and accuracy of insights generated from traditional research. Behavioural science allows researchers to start bridging that perception gap in a number of ways – one way being through the measurement of the gap between consumer intention and action. Bridging the intention-action gap is one topic that our whitepaper covers in more detail.

There is one particular behavioural science insight that is taken into account by insight professionals in an effort to debias research data: every action we take is influenced by unconscious biases – and this occurs in both participants and researchers so there are measures researchers need to take to stop this from occurring on both sides of the research experience.

As a researcher, these biases can occur at any stage in the research experience, we could unintentionally express unconscious biases during sampling, data collection, analysis, or insight generation and reporting stages as easily as breathing if we don’t take care. Steps to take to mitigate bias include: the incorporation of unbiased automation where possible; be cautious of your own actions throughout the other stages and make a note of any biases (stereotyping, etc.) that occur in your thought processes; blind yourself to the contextual data behind the participant data that might trigger your own biases; and  

As participants, when asked to express our opinion on a topic, we tend to agree with the person we believe to be the most knowledgeable on a subject instead of relying on our own knowledge; orchestrating the research experience for participants so that everyone expresses their true opinion rather than relying on others will lend itself to the generation of true insights. As a feature in FlexMR’s Question BoardMR tool, we can turn off the visibility of other answers before a participant has answered themselves. This way we can encourage participant interaction with each other (commenting on each other’s answers), but only after they’ve stated their own true opinions.

However, that isn’t the full extent of behavioural science’s influence in market research. There are a few research methods based on behavioural science insights that insight professionals use every day, usually in conjunction with more traditional research methods to create the clearest picture possible:

  • Social Media Intelligence: insight professionals can learn a lot about consumers and participants through their interactions on online communities. Social media presents an opportunity for researchers to observe participants in their natural (using the term very loosely) environment.
  • Facial Coding and Eye Tracking – by using machine learning automation, insight professionals can use implicit emotional contexts of facial expressions and eye tracking to get an insight into brand perceptions, reactions, and sentiments.
  • Passive Data Collection – this data is a road map of online human behaviour, combined with traditional research data will provide a brilliant scale to measure how wide the gap between intention and action is for each participant.
  • Wearable Research – this is method of passive data collection that also includes tracking the movement and biorhythms of participants, which can be used to inform businesses of where people are and what they’re doing day to day. A scary thought in practicality, but commercially, this behavioural data can work to provide businesses with the means to create a singular, individualised personal experience.
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While behavioural insights can lead to more accurate data, researchers also need to be aware of the ethical considerations and consequences that follow if those insights are misused.

Ethical Considerations to Note

When studying human behaviour, researchers need to be considerate of the ethical notions at play. The first of which is that, while behavioural science can be a boon to the market research process, enhancing initial hypotheses, teaching researchers which data to rely on more than others, how to effectively manage a control group or community, we need to be careful that we don’t use these tools to influence the participants themselves in any way.

One consequence of this would be that the data would be completely compromised, and any insights that could be extracted from the data would be null and void – but the other consequence would be to compromise your integrity as a researcher.

To make sure that you’re using behavioural science in the right, ethical way, there are brilliant resources available from a variety of educational and societal institutions online such as the Behavioural Scientist online publication, to help you on your way. The Behavioural Scientist publication have put together a concise ethics checklist as a start to your ethical considerations when conducting a study using behavioural science methods.

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Emily James

Written by Emily James

As a graduate of Creative Writing, Emily has a passion for content creation. She brings our global vision to life through her excellent writing and editorial skills across a broad selection of our content, and manages communication through social media channels. You can follow her on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Topics: Insight Innovation, Market Research, Business Strategy