Marketing Research & Behaviorism

Maybe we’re all becoming behaviorists.  Maybe our absorption with ever-increasing hardware and software research design solutions – mobile technology, John_Broadus_Watsonmulti-media integration, various social media, *nographies (eth, net, or otherwise) – has made research-by-observation the name of the game.  While researchers may not want to reduce the scope of marketing research to just observable events, there is certainly a fascination with the growing capability of simply observing what people say and do.

John B. Watson is probably one of the most famous and infamous behaviorists in psychology – a disgraced professor at Johns Hopkins who continued his career working on “behavior manipulation” at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency – who wondered “Why don’t we make what we can observe the real field of psychology?”1 He stated that “human psychology is the behavior of the human being” and that a “belief in the existence of consciousness goes back to the ancient days of superstition and magic.”  Watson’s “formula” for describing behavior was quite simple – there is a stimulus (“S”) that elicits a response (“R”).


S can be something we see (e.g., a light from a lamp) or something that resides within us and we can not see (e.g., “changes in the tissues” inside our body).  R (e.g., closing of the pupil or salivary secretions) exists for “every effective stimulus” and is “immediate.”  Watson’s “strict determinist” thinking spilled over into all areas of psychology, including emotions (which simply grow “like our other sets of habits”) and even criminology (Watson asserted that criminals come in only two flavors: psychopaths or the “socially untrained”).

When not in the lab (i.e., in a controlled experimental environment) Watson was not afraid to speculate on what he could not see (S) in order to theorize about what he observed (R).  For instance, Watson conjectured that the emotional behavior of shame was associated with “the first overt masturbation.” But, honestly, what is an R without an S?  We can speculate all we want about the reality that lies behind a particular behavior or attitude – or skip speculation and simply observe – but is that the actionable research that our clients sign up for?

The speed and ingenuity with which contemporary research designs are evolving may be propagating the idea that research today is all about the R, never mind the S.  And this focus on the observable might beg for a new research standard where our attention is on the breadth and depth of responses regardless of mode or technique.  Indeed, recent chatter among some researchers in the cubby holes of social media questions the relevance of the “qualitative research” and “quantitative research” design umbrellas.  A new paradigm has been suggested that is holistic in nature, encompassing all the various modes of data collection stripped of the qualitative or quantitative distinction.  This new model basically puts all research methods on a level playing field and embraces the collective input.  The emphasis here is not on the justification or scrutiny of one approach over another but rather in developing a framework that welcomes all divergent modes and techniques.

So, maybe we’re all becoming behaviorists; but without the science.  All R, no S.


1Watson, John B. 1930. Behaviorism. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


  1. All very fine to focus more on the ‘R’ but there is no escaping the ‘S’ unfortunately! I think the current emphasis on the ‘R’ is the ‘buzz’ of today, it goes around in circles! I like the idea of a ‘framework that welcomes different modes and techniques/ collective input’ to make research actionable, but that should include looking at the ‘R’ with the ‘S’ factored into the analysis.


  2. Interesting. But doesn’t there always have to be a stimuli, something to cause the behavior or comments we’re now observing? Even if we don’t know what it is (yet as we initially observe, I’d have to assume there’s an S in there somewhere.



    1. Thank you, Michelle, for making my point so well. There is an S “in there somewhere” but are we missing the all-important S when our focus is on R?


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