Behavioural economics – implications for research and planning

Image courtesy of Mindspace

I’ve been thinking about what behavioural economics (BE) means for research and planning. How do incorporate ‘decision science’ into research? How do we line up our recommendations so that they can easily be picked up by others trying to inculcate behaviour change?

I’ve come across a couple of great sources in the process. Wendy Gordon from Acacia Avenue hosted a webinar last week focussing on how qualitative practice can be informed by BE. She identified five stages across a typical qualitative project where it could feed in:

  • Scoping your proposal –contextualise the issue the behaviour the client is interested in e.g. (c.f. triggers, barriers); challenge the brief;
  • Tailoring your approach – recruit respondents by behaviour not attitudes; consider including a control group in the research; consider getting respondents to try or give up a behaviour within a project;
  • Stimulus – being aware there is no neutral way to present a choice (cf. framing, anchoring);
  • Discussion guides – decisions often rely on heuristic and contextual factors unavailable to conscious recall – thus we should be careful about how we ask questions relating to behaviour. Get to the “big why” you’re trying to answer via the “little whys” (e.g who were you with, what was the situation, how did it occur, when was it, where were you at the time);
  • Reporting – focus on the levers for behaviour change to make recommendations actionable.

In short knowledge of BE means you can reframe objectives and deliverables. This means at the end of the project we’re discussing interventions that focus on behaviour rather than attitude change.

Positivist vs. dynamic schools of qualitative research

Following this up, Wendy has written a great paper called Behavioural economics and qualitative research – a marriage made in heaven? This not only summarises the literature on BE, but the main schools of qualitative thinking.

Old world – positivist school of qualitative research New world – dynamic school of qualitative research
  • Qualitative research is a rational forum/process of collecting information.
  • Participants in the research process have information that can be extracted through asking direct questions.
  • The question ‘Why?’ is frequently asked of people to account for their attitudes, beliefs, opinions and behaviour.
  • What people say about their behaviour is what they do and what they say is what they mean.
  • People are able to articulate feelings and emotions when asked.
  • There is an objective truth that can be found and then acted upon
  • People don’t say what they mean or mean what they say; what they say they will do in the future usually doesn’t happen.
  • Behaviour is context-dependent
  • Words are poor tools
  • The unconscious exists and so does intuition
  • Emotions rule all decision-making
  • Memory is dynamic
  • ‘We-research’

For me, this comparison brings together many of the individual debates occurring around the subject. What clients tend to ask for is old world, but the truth lives in the new world. Getting to the truth requires skill & expertise – after all, anyone can ask a question and report back an answer. It also requires judgement & intuition: quallies need to be trusted to get on with it.

Wendy concludes that the dynamic school can bring a lot to BE, and closes with a warning that a reductionist take on BE could lead us astray. She writes:

“In order to change behaviour, we first have to identify the way in which a number of interrelated variables are shaping behavioural outcomes… BE has much to learn from dynamic qualitative research, otherwise it might fall into the trap of generating linear formulae for behaviour change of the AIDA or DAGMAR variety. There is no single truth ‘out there’ and human behaviour has defied many hundreds of years of attempts at explaining it in a simple way – simplicity is no more the truth than complexity.”


On the planning and implementation side, Jon Howard’s presentation is excellent summary of how marketers can use BE principles to generate action and inspire change. He describes three bases for behaviour:

He describes three bases for behaviour:

• Cognitive – heuristics, mental rules of thumb make decisions easier
• Chemical – the brain prefers actions with positive outcomes that release a feel good hit
• Social – acting as others do is easier and feels good

He also describes the common barriers to behaviour change

• What’s in it for me?
• What difference can I make?
• What do you actually want me to do?

Like Byron Sharp he demonstrates cognitive dissonance is at the root of behaviour maintenance and change.

He gives the example of battery chickens: the vast majority of the public think the conditions chickens are kept in are poor, but they would rather avoid the issue – “Consumers deliberately reject information on animal welfare due to the emotional response it provokes…where choice is difficult, we’d sometimes prefer not to make it.”

Like Sharp his key insight is to change beliefs, get people to change their behaviour. Changing how we act can make us feel radically different towards something. Act it to be it.

“The alternative approach to converting through argument is to get people to do something without noticing – especially it involves ‘doing good’ rather than ‘stopping bad’” – beliefs will follow. So instead of the scare tactics of the 1980s Aids campaigns (‘stop bad’) handing out free condoms was more effective at changing behaviour (‘do good’). We modify our beliefs to reflect our behaviour, we look for proof to back up the way we act.

His final point:

“Bring people together in simple, feel-good activities they don’t want to miss out on… and even if it’s an issue they don’t especially believe in, their united self-interest might change the world.”

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Behavioural Economics, Consumer Psychology, Marketing Research, Planning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Behavioural economics – implications for research and planning

  1. Pingback: The Cidre chicken and the Stella Artois egg. « Sawdust

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s