Is asking “why” a reckless act?

“People are rational? Nope. People make good witnesses of their own lives? Nope. People will give you the same answer before and after lunch? Er…nope.”

Tom Ewing on the Marketing Society’s blog

The consensus on how humans make decisions has shifted in the past couple of years. The two-system view of cognition has brought forth the role of intuition, emotion and context in our decisions. There is consensus in the market research industry that we need new methods for this new world. There is however no consensus on what those methods should be – and in what combination. Neuromarketing, facial coding, cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and proprietary emotion benchmarking surveys are all being touted as the answer.

The two-system view of cognition

The two system view has two immediate implications for research. Firstly, we need to double-check to see if existing assumptions are correct.  Second, we need to consider how best to adapt existing methods until new methods become mainstream.

In terms of assumptions? We need to start with projective techniques. Timothy Wilson and Sheila Dunn from the University of Virginia make a useful distinction between the traditional Freudian unconscious and what they term the Adaptive unconscious – what market researchers refer as system 1. I’ve summarised their main distinctions in the table below.

Freudian unconscious Adaptive unconscious
  • Mental processes are unconscious due to repression / suppression – there are motivational forces preventing people knowing their thought & feelings
  • The unconscious is a repository of primitive, infantile drives
  • Assumes unconscious states are ‘recoverable’. Like an archaeological dig – some aspects near the surface are easy to examine, others require considerable excavation
  • Mental processes are unconscious due to architecture of the mind
  • The mind operates efficiently by relegating to the unconscious ‘normal’ processes of perception, attention, learning and judgement
  • A large part of mental functioning is inaccessible to conscious awareness no matter how much people introspect


The Freudian and Adaptive views of the unconscious are at odds with one another. If we are adhering to the Adaptive / system 1 view we cast projective techniques in a new light: at the very least we must accept people have a smaller pool of material to draw on when they are projecting into their unconscious minds. There should be an open debate about projective techniques and their role in research.

In terms how we adapt our methods? In certain cases we shouldn’t be asking questions at all.

Many of us are wearily familiar with respondents giving plausible reasons for their behaviour, which may or may not correspond to reality. As Rory Sutherland put it in Research:

“The conscious rational brain isn’t the Oval Office. It’s actually the press office issuing explanations for actions we’ve already taken.” 

We already know the “rational question / rational response” paradigm has its limits, thus we observe more and ask less.

In their paper Self-knowledge: its limits, value, and potential for improvement Wilson & Dunn summarise research examining the extent to which people understand their own behaviour:

 “…people do not have access to the actual reasons behind their feelings, attitudes and judgement and thus generate reasons that are consistent with cultural and personal theories that are accessible in memory (Nizbett & Wilson 77). But, people do not recognise that the reasons they have just generated are incomplete or inaccurate, and thus assume that their attitude is the one implied by these reasons. Put differently, people construct a new attitude, at least temporarily, that is consistent with the reasons that happen to come to mind, but which might not correspond to their implicit attitudes.”

In other words, asking “why” can be a reckless act, prompting a confabulated response which subsumes reality. It’s like measuring your tyre pressures – the act of taking off the valve to make a measurement releases air – changing the thing you intended to measure in the first place. The truth might out if you approach it obliquely and without direct questioning. But you’ve got to tread carefully. Far better to focus on behaviour, as Wilson has been quoted:

“One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behaviour change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings.” (the Social Animal, p129)

In terms of adapting existing methods, I’d ensure in-depth interviews always include observation in situ: observation of the respondent immersed in their world, close to the relevant context and actual behaviour of interest. In this situation we can do a lot before direct questioning comes into play. The minute we open our mouths we immediately re-frame the context. Asking “What do you like about x?” might not only be meaningless (A: “I don’t care”) but reckless (establishing a false counter narrative).

And if we can’t be in situ and we’re deprived of “why” – what do we rely on? I’d argue projective techniques have a role to play as they bypass direct questioning. We may be “fishing from a shallower pool” however they might actually be our best way to avoid fictitious post-rationalisation.

One way of treading lightly – and avoiding the reckless act of asking why.

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 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is asking “why” a reckless act?

  1. Jane Hanford says:

    Whilst I think the Freudian theory of the subconscious has been largely superseded in later work by the likes of Damasio, LeDoux, Kahneman plus many others, I wonder if we might steal a leaf out of his book and employ a free association type of technique to explore consumers’ psyche. For practical purposes we would need a minimal steering of subject matter and a post- exercise debriefing to explore the responses given. At least they would only be applying post-rationalisation after the task.

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