What is it?

An annual award given to the best workshop session at the BHBIA Annual Conference, as determine by participant ratings.

Our Workshop

Behavioural Economics 2.0: 20 ways to PUT behavioural economics theory into market research practice

John Aitchison, Managing Director, First Line Research Ltd (john@firstlineresearch.com)
Marie Harrison, Partner, Consortium (marie@consortiumresearch.com)
Nick Southgate, Behavioural consultant (nick@nicksouthgate.com)

In a commercial sense, behavioural economics reared its head in 2008 with airport lounge books such as Nudge (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008), and Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely, 2008). Since then we’ve all learnt about how fascinating it all is, how it links to social psychology and neuroscience, and why it represents such keen opportunities – and threats – to researchers and marketers. With this conference workshop we wanted to move things on a notch, away from theory-based plenary sessions, and towards the specifics of how we can put behavioural economics ideas into pharmaceutical market research practice.

We began by acknowledging that market research is naturally chock full of biases, and that those introduced by behavioural economics are effectively just the latest wave. That said, we don’t see any evidence for it being a fad – the core discoveries all hook-up, replicate, and are demonstrably true. So we need to work with it, not ignore it. We sought to reassure delegates that in highlighting our systematic non-rational ‘errors’ behavioural economics does not reduce us to flawed or robotic units. Rather it formalises what many will feel we have instinctively known all along – that intuition and emotion are integral to decision-making. Crucially, it shows how in the moment feelings inevitably lead us, even when making choices that seem to demand an almost entirely rational approach.

But that is not to fall into the trap of extrapolating to a position where reason and deliberation are therefore unimportant. Behavioural economics does not trump rationality! It is true that when we ask people to explain their actions and motivations their replies can’t and don’t tell the authentic story, but what we do get is a carefully constructed account that tells us about their self-image and world view, and the social and professional norms to which they aspire and feel they adhere. It is valuable to know and understand those things, and many of the approaches we advocate deliberately combine the capture of emotionally-led “fast-thinking” with deliberative “slow-thinking”. We think this is especially important in Pharma, where there is an obvious scientific component to clinical decision making. To pretend that reason doesn’t matter in this setting – that physicians prescribe based entirely on inherent biases and heuristics – would be a huge mistake.  For example, we know that health professionals feel positively reassured whenever rational scientific argument is presented – irrespective of its quality – and suspicious when it is absent. So at the very least it plays a role in setting the emotional context and, of course, some may actually read it and consciously upgrade their clinical practice as a result!.

We have summarised three of the 20 approaches that we shared on the day:

Cognitive Loading

What is it?Our everyday experience serves to illustrate our cognitive limitations. We are inclined to be cognitively lazy / efficient (whichever you prefer!) We are also easily distracted and the combination can greatly assist researchers seeking to get beyond participants considered answers.
What’s the theory?When our brains are faced with a demanding task, our guard tends to drop in other areas. In “system 1” / “system 2” terms, if we are already engaged in a system 2 activity we are much less likely to complete another system 2 activity (e.g. responding to a question) successfully, and thus respond in less guarded terms.
How can I use it?To get beyond the barrier of rationality when investigating areas that are socially or otherwise sensitive or in conjunction with enabling or projective techniques. Examples:
- Ask respondents to recall a string of numbers
- Ask them to recall verbatim a rhyme or story
- Ask them to recall directions to a venue
- Give them a task – solve a puzzle, build a LEGO model


“Not-ness” – other people

What is it?We define ourselves very much by comparison with others, and by what we are not. Asking for introspection is beset with problems but is useful to understand the constructed self, or self-concept. Focusing attention on other people also avoids our having to ask very direct questions, which some may find intrusive or difficult to answer.
What’s the theory?We are better able to describe our perceived opposites than we are ourselves, because we lack self-insight. This is not a new theory, and is practised extensively by therapists. It also makes an appearance in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) literature.
How can I use it?To get a more complete sense of how the respondent sees themselves. This provides a useful analytical benchmark – which allows more sophisticated analysis of other responses. Try asking a respondent to bring to mind a practitioner who is as unlike themselves as possible (within a specified context) and see how far this description will take them.


Semantic priming

What is it?Semantic priming is a fast paced ‘implicit’ technique in which we precede a question with something abstract like a concept, or an idea (which can include visual ideas, like logos). The prime only appears to the respondent for a split second, with the process repeated using different primes and/or a control (non-primed) condition.
What’s the theory?We have just enough time to see the abstract prime (e.g. logo) prior to answering a simple question about the subject (e.g. brand). Our system 1 has already reacted - ensuring that when we answer we do so whilst holding some image of the brand in mind, albeit non-consciously. There is debate as to whether semantic priming is a ‘true’ implicit technique, but it works.
How can I use it?To get a more complete sense of In company and brand image testing, to reveal respondents’ implicit beliefs about a brand, as opposed to their stated beliefs. Online semantic priming exercises are often paired with traditional questions which test the same attributes (monadically, splitting the sample) so we can contrast intuitive response with considered position, giving a more complete understanding. Classic system 1 PLUS 2!


Feel free to contact us for more on incorporating behavioural economics approaches into qualitative and quantitative market research practice.

John Aitchison, Managing Director, First Line Research Ltd (john@firstlineresearch.com)

Marie Harrison, Partner, Consortium (marie@consortiumresearch.com)

Nick Southgate, Behavioural consultant (nick@nicksouthgate.com)