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Actions speak louder than words… or do they?

Actions speak louder than words… or do they?

Behavioral Science is a topic of much discussion and interest within the market research community. Unlike biology or chemistry, it is not a strict science; however its main premise is based on the idea that individuals have limited “introspective access” to their cognitive processes. Considering the fact that most forms of market research rely on self-reporting in order to gain insight, Behavioral Science appears to be at conflict with research tools such as surveys or focus groups. Following the old adage that “actions speak louder than words”, we cover three points that contest this statement and argue for a more integrated approach. 

  1. Contrary to the belief of Behavioral Scientists, research conducted by academics generally concludes that human beings are reliable witnesses of their own lives. Human beings are equipped with amazing cognitive abilities that can process complex situations and break them down into simple pieces of information. Whilst our behaviors are sometimes driven by impulse (hence why we always find chocolate and snacks located near checkout counters), majority of our actions are based on conscious thought and judgment. Additionally, although Behavioral Scientists may dismiss the value of surveys, they are actually able to generate high predictive validity of consumer behavior, reinforcing the value of self-reporting.
  1. Matthew Salganik, a Sociology professor at Princeton once said “Researchers who study dolphins can’t ask them questions. So, dolphin researchers are forced to study behavior. Researchers who study humans, on the other hand, should take advantage of the fact that our participants can talk.” Our behaviors and actions do not occur in a vacuum. There are external as well as internal triggers (emotion, knowledge, opinions, expectations, etc.) that can provide valuable insight into understanding an individual’s behavior (as well as predicting future behavior). Such triggers can be uncovered through questioning, rather than simply observing.
  1. It is important to note that arguing in defense of surveys or focus groups does not automatically mean arguing against Behavioral Science. As will be seen time and time again in any research debate, every method and tool has its limitations. Consumer behavior is determined by meaning and cultural context- the subtleties of which are often missed by pure observation. That said, self-reporting techniques also have their own limitations. For instance, human beings sometimes paint an incomplete picture due to their inability to recall certain details or specifics concerning a particular activity or event.

As with any field, market research is one that is constantly developing new techniques and tools. An understanding of how to best apply these tools in the right contexts results in a better understanding of the research topic at hand. Ultimately, the integration of traditional and contemporary methods is key to understanding consumers and the changing nature of the world in which we live in today.