Let’s Strive for Greater Scientific Integrity at MRX Conferences

Aaron Reid
Ph.D. Chief Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

Last year I listened to a chief research officer give a talk on behavioral change research at a market research conference. Three things stood out for me in that talk.

First, the speaker was incredibly entertaining and fun to watch. He had the whole crowd laughing and engaged and used some good examples to illustrate the irrationality of human behavior.

Second, the presentation was dangerously close to suggesting a Skinnerian psychological approach to understanding consumer behavior (i.e., stimulus/response psychology without consideration of how the stimulus interacts with the dispositional and situational values and motivations of the consumer to produce the response).

Skinnerian stimulus response psychology went out in the ’60s with the cognitive revolution in psychological research–the very revolution that led to current behavioral economics research frameworks, which is what this talk was about in the first place.

Third, in reference to an in-market application of a behavioral economics effect, the speaker said, “Do I need to understand perfectly how it works? No, I just need to make it work.” I’ll give him the “perfectly” caveat, but in terms of the general sentiment of not needing to know why…Yikes!

Understanding “Why” is Critical for Actionable Insights

The application of behavioral economics effects in business is showing great promise as agencies digest the insights from the last 40 years of judgment and decision-making research and turn them into practical applications for their clients.

However, if we bring this new discipline to market research without a pronounced dedication to understanding “why” a behavioral economics effect is producing the consumer behavior we’re observing, we’ll be left wondering if that same principle will work again in a different context with different brands with different consumers.

Understanding the “why” is critical for deeper insight and ultimately broader more strategic and impactful applications of insights.

We Can’t Sacrifice Scientific Integrity for Good Storytelling

I love speakers who are entertaining at industry conferences. Good storytelling is an incredibly effective way of communicating critical insights and persuading an audience.

But surely we can’t sacrifice scientific integrity in our research approaches for the sake of an entertaining story. That has no legs and no place in the future of market research as a serious enterprise dedicated to improving the business performance of our clients.

Here are some other doozies we were exposed to at conferences across 2013 and 2014:

  • Mastery was referred to as a fundamental emotion. Come on, mastery leads to emotions (like pride or satisfaction or contentment), but it’s not an emotion itself.
  • Implicit association testing was referred to as “behavioral economics” on a “neuromarketing” panel.
  • A speaker argued that in order to measure System 1 processing, we just need to get participants to stop thinking, and then even a conscious deliberate evaluation of brand could be considered implicit if we measured the response time. Are we really okay with someone telling us that a conscious reflection followed by a deliberate, controllable response is a measure of System 1?
  • “We’re just the technology, you guys are the researchers,” in response to a question of whether a mobile dry electrode EEG measurement technology that was being pitched as a viable solution for market research had been validated.
  • The machine learning in Google Glass knows why a consumer bought a specific roll of paper towels by analyzing where he has looked across his shopping path in the store. This one is just beyond the pale! And yet the audience gobbled it up because the tech was just so cool!
  • And if I dare go back to 2011 at the height of the first “neuromarketing” hype: All we need are 12 males and 12 females, regardless of who they are, for an EEG study and we will have a fundamental understanding of how humans will respond to an advertisement because the brain is the brain. Unbelievably, even after that was debunked, I still hear people who believe that to be true today.

As we are now into the market research conference swing for 2015, I would like to see us all hold the scientific integrity of our market research methods and consulting approaches in higher regard.

Let’s call each other out when we’re not as precise as we should be in our communications, and perhaps be a little less polite when a speaker delivers information that is either controversial, outdated or simply inaccurate.

Scientific discovery and holding fast to scientific integrity in our research methodology is what will give the #newmr movement the foundation it needs to play a meaningful role in the business decision making processes of the future.

How about you? What statements or assertions have you heard at #MRX conferences that make you want to stand up for science? Log in and leave a comment here or tweet your experience with the hashtags #MRX #SolidScience.

1 Comment

  • Annie Pettit says:

    I’ve noticed the exact same thing – a dumbing down of science in favour of entertainment. Go to an AAPOR conference. It’s a completely different experience. Science all the way. 🙂

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