Qualitative Research: Can it Produce System 1 Thinking?

From the desk of Kathy Doyle

Multiple times in recent months, I have been told by clients that they are being advised to forego conducting focus groups because they elicit rational, logical responses – System 2 thinking – rather than tapping into subconscious, emotional responses of System 1 thinking*. These methods include facial coding, biometrics, eye tracking, EEG’s, etc.   However, while Doyle Research has experience with some of these methods, I’d like to go out on a limb and argue that qualitative research, when done well, can actually produce System 1 thinking.

The issue we face is that most traditional research methods ARE tapping into System 2 thinking. We are asking questions, and waiting for answers (“look at this, and tell me what you think”).   What we get are rational, considered, thoughtful responses.   But that is only a portion of what really drives human behavior.  So we need qualitative approaches executed by trained moderators that can tap into System 1 thinking in order to better understand the subconscious influencers and drivers of human behavior.

Here are four ideas to consider:

  • Incorporate projective techniques.    An easy “add” to a focus group session, projective techniques are designed to get below surface responses to uncover subconscious attitudes, feelings and behaviors.    Just one example is the use of picture sorts. Respondents are given a series of pictures totally unrelated to the topic at hand (perhaps scenery or animals for a CPG category) and asked to select the picture that best fits their feelings about a brand, a product, an experience, a situation.  They have to step out of their System 2 thinking in order to do the exercise and emotional, subconscious thoughts are the result.
  • Incorporate an observational component, so that you can observe discrepancies in behavior between what someone says they do vs. what you observe.     A classic example that actually came from a laundry care project many years ago:  as respondents were sorting their laundry during an in-home interview they would say “I sort my clothes into whites and darks”.   But time after time, respondents would generate 5 or 6 different piles that did not appear to fall into either a “white” OR a “dark” pile.  What you are seeing are behaviors that are automatic and, sometimes, totally subconscious. By discussing what we had observed, more nuanced answered were elicited.
  • Capture behaviors over time, in a short-term community, or using mobile ethnography.    An example: we recently followed new moms for a month to understand how feeding decisions were made.  They used their smart phones to complete a guided audio and video diary, sharing their thoughts and experiences as a new mother.     They were not aware that understanding their feeding decisions was our end goal; we wanted to observe the context, influencers (medical personnel, literature, family, employers) and emotions that went into their decision.
  • Capture “In the moment” behaviors using mobile technology.   Example:  mobile intercepts with panel members whose location services are on, and who enter a geo-fenced location. This allows us to capture respondents’ reactions to an experience, as it takes place, and while respondents are literally in- the-moment.

It is our responsibility, as qualitative researchers, to continually seek ways to get below surface responses and gain insights that are grounded in consumers’ actual behaviors rather than their reported ones, and more likely to uncover a more complete story than techniques that rely solely on System 2 processing.

*Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.