The pandemic as a social and psychological experiment

(this is a summary of my talk for ESOMAR TV Europe and North America on April 30th 2020)

The day before schools were closed in Bucharest, I was speaking at an international conference about my thoughts regarding the future of qual. And my main points were (more detail here: A few thoughts on the future of qualitative research):

  • In a world with an abundance of data, but increasingly behavioural/ observational/ passively collected data, qual will be needed to explain what does it all mean.
  • In a community that is being swept off its feet by the seduction of technology, we need to make sure we understand what exactly do we need technology to do in order to grasp a better understanding of humans (and not just force fit the shiniest pieces of technology in our processes).

At the beginning of the CoVID crisis, the qualitative research community conversations were dominated by questions about what technology is available and learning how to use it and so little was talked about what exactly we should do with the technology in order to grasp a better understanding of humans.

I did some thinking on the “what”, and here are my thoughts.

There are two ways in which qual can bring value/ meaning to the pandemic ridden world:

  1. The understanding of NOW. A more tactical outlook focused on “understanding people in crisis”: following close in people’s footsteps to understand how their life is different these days, what are their specific needs, tensions and coping mechanisms. This about reacting fast, agility, real-time insights
  2. The more strategic outlook: the understanding of people (NOT just in crisis). The crisis as a huge psychological experiment. Psychology studies are based on experiments, learnings are derived from putting people in carefully designed situations and seeing how they act, what choices they make etc. This is exactly what is happening today. There are several experiments we are living. Some are experiments of deprivation. Others are experiments of inflation. And many are experiments designed around how people react to change.

Doing just the tactical type of research is a huge missed opportunity. How people react to the current situation, how they feel, how they cope or do not cope can teach us about crisis behaviour but also about the fundamentals of human psychology, in a uniquely designed experiment.

One. Deprivation and inflation are techniques that have been proven very valuable in qualitative research for ages.

Deprivation means exploring a topic by exploring the effects of its absence. The OG deprivation exercise in literature is described by Jon Steel in his book Truth, Lies and Advertising – he asked respondents not to consume milk for a week prior to participating in focus groups organized in order to gather insights that would boost milk consumption.

Deprivation works because it reveals unconscious needs and motivations, that are otherwise difficult to articulate by people.

Inflation is just the opposite. Exploring a topic by saturating its presence in people’s lives. By making it’s benefits or drawbacks almost painfully obvious.

Both can be done in qualitative research so many ways:

Once, when working on understanding barriers to consuming white yogurt, we filled people’s fridges with yogurt and asked them to consume everything within 3 days.

Other time, when exploring the role of scent in cleaning products we placed respondents with sample products that were much more scented than they would have ever been in real life.

But my favourite inflation experiment was the idea of an advertising agency here in Bucharest, that was exploring the “life benefits” of having a good hair day. For a week, every morning , they had sent a professional hairdresser to the participants’ homes to do their hair and then followed up on how their day to day living changed as a consequence to that.

What people are living today are huge inflation and deprivation exercises. And not just related to consumption but related to their existence as humans. Exercises that we would never dream or dare to orchestrate, in a regular times research.

In regular times, we may be able to ask people not to shave for a week or cook 3 meals a day Monday to Friday. But we would never pull off a deprivation exercise that would ask people to celebrate Easter in isolation from their families. Yet, it happened. And it provided the perfect seting to explore the meaning of festive food/ holiday meals and their connection to family identity.

Two. The second major type of experiment is the one around change.

The million dollar question of the day is “what will change/ what current changes will stick etc.”. Business want answers in order to react to the change, to capitalize on the new behaviours that arise or not be left behind etc

A more strategic mindset would imply moving from a reactive view to a pro-active one: how do we want to change the future?

I know you’ve heard this before, but I will immediately give you a very concrete suggestion on how qual can help on that:

By looking at what people want to change

It is not all bad. People get to experiment new behaviours that they end up liking, change that they appreciate and see benefits from. Much of this is a consequence of self-isolation and work from home. There is no guarantee that this positive change will stick once the context shifts again.

So what if we reframe the Q from “what will change/ what will stick?” into “what is the change people want and how can brands help make this change stick?

Qual can collect all the relevant learning from these experiments. Qual can explore the rewards people are seeing from the appealing new behaviours, rewards that could be turned into future triggers for maintaining and repeating the behaviour. Qual can also explore the pains that need to be fixed in order to simplify the actions required to achieve the reward. Qual can look at what makes people feel invested in a new desireable behaviour: time, effort, progressing towards a bigger goal – in Nir Eyal’s habit loop model of behaviour the “investment” step is crucial in creating behaviours that stick.

And above all, in a world that obsesses about what will change, qual can explore what is NOT changing for people? What is so fundamental, so important, that doesn’t change even in these times of crisis – and can be relied upon?

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