When Reality Rips On Rational Decisions

I love to listen to a variety of podcasts--when I am driving, doing chores around the house, or when I am running. (I am so slow on my runs that I get a lot more podcast listening in than the average runner.)


One of my favorite podcasts is Hidden Brain, an NPR podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam. Not only is it an engaging podcast, the topics are, of course, around the brain, and often tap into research studies to explore how we make decisions and other aspects of the human psyche. All these are extremely relevant to marketing, market research, product development, advertising and many other things that you and I touch in our jobs. On top of that, I love how this podcast often gets me thinking about the deeper aspects of how I do research.


In a recent podcast, titled In The Heat of the Moment, Shankar explored the impact of strong emotions on decision-making and how in the heat of the moment people often make decisions that they would never have seen coming. Invariably, if asked during a survey or interview what they would do in the actual situation--without being in it--most people react to it and predict they would react in a rational way. Some of the situations researched included cases of sexual harassment where survey takers tended to predict they would react to unwanted advances in a courageous and rational manner--by calling the culprit on their actions. But when they actually experienced the described situation, in a mock job interview, they typically kept silent. The “heat of the moment”--the emotional impact when someone is actually embroiled in the situation--makes a big difference on how they end up acting and often the results are the opposite of any rational response.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

While the topics have been less socially significant, over my many years in market research, I have often seen where survey responses to questions like whether the consumer would buy a certain product are answered on a very rational level. But I am fairly certain that once in the store or on Amazon, emotions play a much bigger role in the purchase decision.

A few years ago we did a concept test around a cleaning product. On the various five point scales (you know, likelihood to purchase, how unique it is, how appealing it is, etc.--where the key metric is the percent rating the concept in the top two boxes) the concept was off the charts fantastic. Yet, once it was on store shelves, it didn’t sell well at all.


How did we get it so wrong? I could get into my opinion of the five point purchase likelihood question and how it is notoriously poor at predicting eventual sales. Or I could point to changes in the actual product in the time between concept testing and getting on store shelves--though the changes were fairly minor, if any.


My belief is that the research didn’t capture the emotional aspects of the purchase decision and that was exaggerated because the marketing message used in the concept test was to make a very rational case for spending X dollars for the product that would save at least Y dollars in cleaning costs. This rational appeal, which I have often heard used by inventors, quite likely even further removed the survey from capturing the emotional side of the purchase decision.


This is an inherent problem with most concept testing in surveys--that respondents will tend to answer rationally. In this one case, that tendency may have been pushed to the extreme by the nature of the concept and it’s claims, but still, given what we learned from this podcast, about the disparity between what people predict they would do (like buy the concept) in a rational survey and what they actually do in the store--when emotions are more at play in the purchase decision.


What can be done to better integrate the emotional aspect into a survey? The more we can make the survey reflect real life--the more congruent we can make it--the more likely the emotional aspects will be able to come into play. But, easier said than done.


We don’t know all the unique emotions attending a decision in real life. Shopper A might be having an all around horrible, no good, very bad day and that affects their purchase decision in one way, while Shopper B might have kids in the cart that are creating a stressful shopping experience. Somehow capturing these in a survey--well, we haven’t gotten there yet, I don’t think.


On the other hand, I have learned that the same principles behind projective techniques--disarming respondents basically--can help emotions come back into play a bit. For example, with one concept we tested, we created a website screenshot for the concept (it was eventually going to be sold on the web, so it made sense)--and rather than directly asking about the concept--we sneakily told respondents we were getting their feedback on the site design. Of course, we asked which buttons and links they would go to, and in what order. From that we got a measure of how many would put the concept in their shopping cart--a pretty good proxy for purchase intent. The sneaky approach seemed to allow the emotional side of the purchase decision to come more into play than the traditional concept testing questions.


Virtual store shelves can also help make the concept test more like real life. While they can’t necessarily replicate a two-year-old’s temper tantrum in the aisle, they do put the respondent in a more realistic frame of mind and this can allow emotions to come more into play in their response.


If you are testing concepts, think about ways to capture the emotional aspects of the purchase decision along with the rational that you are sure to capture. This will create a much better prediction of market potential for your concept.