The mirrorIt is the fashion for market researchers to lean on the invigorating discoveries from behavioural economics and social psychology to try and bring about behaviour change. By which I mean, being direct in designing research that seeks to show the most desirable behavioural ‘Nudge’ /s for a given problem. For me, this is both misguided and risky…

Firstly, it is the most obvious thing to do following the glut of media, business and government interest in ‘Nudge’-ing, under Thaler and Sunstein’s influence. Perhaps the potential to exploit respondents’ irrational heuristics and biases is indeed the most profitable use of research insights, and therefore the most attractive. And I’m sure that many excellent researchers also see an opportunity for market research to really prove its worth – a golden chance to demonstrate that elusive return on investment, via the revealing of relatively simple ‘before and after’ effects.

But is it the role of research to lead change? For me, no. I feel strongly that our role is to understand and interpret behaviour – and behavioural economics can help us greatly in that task. My argument is that we should be focusing on how behavioural economics and it’s stable-mates can help us design better research and work more intelligently with its findings. The translation of behavioural economics out of the literature and into better research design is much the more difficult proposition in my view, albeit less obvious than the ‘creating behaviour change’ angle.

Whilst some of our new behavioural understandings cast an ominous shadow over conventional research approaches, there are traditional ideas worth keeping – like independence of analysis and reporting. In my view, market research is at its best when it is thoughtfully prepared, rigorously analysed and skilfully interpreted.  And there, for supply side researchers at least, it should stop– and hand over conclusions and recommendations to those whose job it is to work closely with the subject brands and services – the internal research / business intelligence folk, marketers, product managers, commercial directors and the like.

When supply-side researchers go a step further and seek to be involved in the run-in to commercial decisions following on from research outcomes we cross a line, onto the clients’ side, which is necessarily partial, and in doing so we effectively relinquish our ability to deliver true independence and impartiality on future projects. When we become partners with clients in such scenarios we play a risky game; our colours get tied to the mast.

That said, for client side researchers I can see the case for pursuing findings through to their natural commercial conclusion and being an advocate for exciting behavioral findings. But even then I’d venture that there’s a danger that in doing so the research function will lose some of its power to hold the horses, when needed. In my mind, research should be about accurately informing management and marketing thinking and I don’t see how internal research teams can do that if they get too close to brand commercials.

That is not to say we should not collaborate with our internal and external clients – we obviously and certainly should, but in my view that collaboration is an essential part of the process at the outset: in the setting and grasping of objectives; and thinking around methodology and technique. For client side researchers I guess that collaboration continues until their internal customers have ‘got it’ in terms of understanding the outputs and  messages etc). It is in these tasks that we should sit down with our knowledge from behavioural economics and work out good things to do research-wise.

Finally, from an ethical perspective, can it be right that we implicate ourselves in commercially oriented manipulation of behaviour, where that manipulation is based on research that deliberately sought to uncover the most effective behavioural nudges? That might sound a but prim, I realise, but how would we feel and where would we be if a recommended behaviour change back-fired and somehow left the end-customer worse off in some (perhaps serious) way? Just look at where a bold behavioural/emotional research experiment just got Facebook

OK – so the argument presented in summary above is not so alluring as the one which says, take this opportunity to make things happen and at long last allow good research to take some credit for its astonishing behavioural insights! Nevertheless, I do think that focusing behavioural knowledge on making better designed, independent, research (which keeps a respectful distant from the ultimate commercial decision) is our strongest long term strategy.