Qualitative Research & Thinking About How People Think

Whether we know it or not researchers are always thinking about how people think.  Whether it is explicit or implicit in our work, we are thinking about how people think from the very beginning — the conceptualization of research design — through to the very end — the analysis and interpretation of research findings.  Everything we do, really, is about matching research techniques, question design, fieldwork protocols, data coding, and final analysis with the reality of how people think — Will people be more forthcoming regarding sensitive issues in an online survey than a telephone interview?  Do people respond differently if we ask a question about “gay men & lesbians” versus “homosexuals”?   Will respondents or potential focus group participants self-select out of a study if the interviewer inadvertently mentions the controversial nature of the interview in the first moments of the introduction?  How are the coders interpreting open-end comments? – Will one coder code “I would like more pulp in the orange juice I buy” as ‘need to improve quality’ or as ‘need to improve taste’ or create a new code specific to pulp?  And, when the data or discussions/interviews are ready for analysis, how do we translate the integration of various aspects of the findings into usable next steps for the end-user?

Quantitative researchers have openly discussed how people think for some time.  Tourangeau, Rips, & Rasinski (2000), Sudman, Bradburn, & Schwarz (1996), and Bradburn, Sudman, and Wansink (2004) are just a few examples of the researchers who have written extensively on cognitive psychological principles related to survey methods.  But I am left wondering, ‘where are similar treatises in the commercial qualitative marketing research world?’  If cognitive principles apply in the quantitative realm then surely they apply to research forms devoted to in-depth conversations and elaborate probes that ladder to key benefits in the qualitative arena.

I would argue that cognitive-process theories are as relevant and important to qualitative marketing research as they are to quantitative.  For example, let’s look at optimization1 and satisficing1 as it relates to the presentation of stimuli in a focus group context.  Tourangeau et al., (2000) and others have espoused a basic four-step cognitive-process model to discuss how research participants respond to questions optimally: 1) interpreting the question to deduce its intent; 2) searching the memory for relevant information; 3) integrating that information into a judgment; and, 4) translating that judgment into a response.  The fact that focus group studies typically involve a limited number of stimuli and moderators’ guides are designed to take participants through this cognitive process by motivating thoughtful responses strongly argues for the idea that optimization, not satisficing, is at play in these research settings.  Similarly, the likelihood of research participants opting for a response that is “good enough,” or satisficing, is greatly reduced.  Applied to the use of concept boards and other stimuli in focus groups, one could argue that the concept of primacy and recency effects are irrelevant in focus group research and, while randomizing the presentation order of stimuli is de rigueur in quantitative, not necessarily so in qualitative.  To the contrary, there is an argument to be made that not randomizing across group sessions adds a necessary component of control.

So, what do you think?  What do you see as the role of cognitive-process theories in qualitative marketing research?  A contribution to this discussion is most welcomed.

1 Optimization and satisficing refer to the extent respondents “perform the necessary cognitive tasks” to answer research questions.  In the former, respondents exert the effort to thoroughly comprehend and weigh response choices in order to select the optimal answer; in contrast, respondents who satisfice “may compromise their standards and expend less energy…Instead of generating the most accurate answers…[they] settle for merely satisfactory ones.” [quoted statements taken from Krosnick, J.A. 1999. Survey research. Annual Review of Psychology, 50, 537-567]


Tourangeau, R., Rips, L., & Rasinski, K. 2000. The Psychology of Survey Response. Cambridge University Press.

Sudman, S., Bradburn, N., & Schwarz, N. 1996. Thinking About Answers. Jossey-Bass.

Bradburn, N., Sudman, S., & Wansink, B. 2004. Asking Questions: The Definitive Guide to Questionnaire Design – For Market Research, Political Polls, and Social and Health Questionnaires. Jossey-Bass.


  1. You are quite correct that these issues are typically discussed in quant work but need to be considered for qual as well. One that you didn’t mention is social desirability bias, which definitely affects personal interviews. I’d also be interested in seeing studies of group dynamics and how they affect behavior in focus groups and online communities.


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