Cognitive Traps, Distortions, & Challenges to Research Design

Joel Rubinson posted an interesting commentary on the GreenBook blog back in July 2012 titled, “When marketing research is like a sunset on Pluto.”  In it he discusses behavioral economics, the “shortcuts” respondents take to find answers to our research questions, and how people tend “to access their memory in a faulty way.”  Is it no wonder that “50% of respondents” who re-take an attitudinal survey express an opinion different from their earlier response?

Daniel Kahneman, a renowned psychologist long associated with the beginnings of behavioral economics, discusses “faulty” thinking in his February 2010 TED talk “The riddle of experience vs. memory.”  Kahneman makes the point that the “experiencing self” is something different than the “reflective” or “remembering self.”  To illustrate, he talks about happiness.  Happiness, Kahneman states, belongs only to the moment when we are actually experiencing the feeling of happiness.  When that moment has passed it is “lost forever.”  When we reflect on that moment we can tell stories about the experience but we can never regain the experience of happiness itself.  In this way, Kahneman says we can’t think of any circumstance that effects well-being without distorting its importance.  This inability to “attend to the same things when we think about life [versus when we] actually live” is, according to Kahneman, a “real cognitive trap.”

In his blog post, Joel Rubinson delineates “seven tips” for marketing researchers to circumvent the cognitive trap and the distorted survey responses that come with it.  A few of these tips are great design ideas – using “natural vocabulary” and answer choices, and at-the-moment methods – while others, Rubinson acknowledges, will be “frowned on by many purists,” such as adding a warm-up survey component to get the respondent’s “head and heart into the moment” (which, by the way, is not necessarily a bad idea).

How to marry quality design practices with the reality of the cognitive trap and ensuing distortions is an ongoing dilemma.  The bigger question, however, is how to find a solution to this dilemma without shortchanging the rigor of your research design.  Like the whole notion of change, you can ignore it (as in: pretend that quality standards don’t exist) or find an easy workaround (as in: apply the latest technology); or come face-to-face with the problem at hand by establishing researcher-end-user partnerships that are founded on making the painful commitment of the time and money required of a quality research product.

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