Fast & Slow Thinking in Research Design

The November/December 2013 issue of ESOMAR’s Research World was largely devoted to behavioral economics (BE), an increasingly-popular topic in marketing circles.  In it, Taste of slowvarious researchers discuss the virtues of embracing a BE model, with repeated reference specifically to Daniel Kahneman and his System 1-System 2 theory which is the foundation of his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The overall takeaway is the idea that marketing researchers would do well to focus their efforts on research that gets at System 1 thinking – intuitive, instinctive, automatic, fast thinking – rather than System 2 thinking – deliberative, “effortful,” attentive, slow thinking – because of its predominance in many of the decisions people make.  Indeed, Kahneman emphasizes in his book that, unbeknownst to many of us, System 1 (automatic, effortless) thinking exerts significant influence on our experiences and is “the secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make” (p. 13)[1].  And this, of course, can be a very good thing, allowing us to readily make appropriate judgments when, for example, driving a car on an empty road, calculating simple equations such as 2 + 2, and detecting hostility in someone’s voice.

With System 1 thinking in mind, BE-leaning researchers believe that a greater emphasis on marketing research designs that tap into consumers’ intuitive and emotional side – rather than research methods requiring attentive, cognitive effort, such as structured attitudinal survey questions; or, as one researcher suggested, in-depth interviews more than five minutes in length – have “the potential to increase the accuracy of predicting customer behaviour”[2] (italics added).

This might be a good time to sit back and enjoy “a taste of slow.”  While a focus on research designs that incorporate behavior and context (such as ethnography) to capture the instinctive, intuitive impulses associated with System 1 thinking makes sense under certain circumstances, BE researchers may want to slow down in accepting the idea that these research designs will improve their ability to predict the very erratic, complicated world of consumer purchase.  Kahneman himself clearly talks about “the marvels and the flaws” of intuition.  While intuition (System 1 thinking) is great for driving a car on an empty road, it is not so great in more complex, unpredictable situations.  In his interview with Charlie Rose, Kahneman uses the example of the stock market, saying: “We know that the stock market is chaotic, is extremely complicated, and it doesn’t have enough regularity for people to learn” – that is, the complicated, irregularity of the stock market makes it impossible to learn a pattern or what will happen next.  The fact that the stock market is not “learnable” makes it a poor target for System 1 thinking.

Consumerism and the stock market are not so different.  To assume that simply observing consumers at the moment of purchase or capturing their instinctive impulses in response to research stimuli will lead to accurate forecasting of future behavior ignores the fact that the marketplace, and consumers’ place within it, is a very messy irregular environment crowded with uncontrollable factors destined to unseat the most loyal customer.  Kahneman alludes to them when he talks, for example, about the impact of store promotions on purchase behavior (i.e., “anchoring”).  The degree to which the marketplace is not learnable should be reason enough to slow down the rush to rely on System 1 thinking to predict consumer behavior.

Decision making, according to Kahneman, is a “proper mix of intuition and reasoning” – that is, System 1 and System 2 thinking.  It may be fine and good to predict consumer acceptance of product advertisements by testing consumers’ reactions to faces depicting different emotions or judging the speed and intensity by which consumers associate certain images with product-related concepts (i.e., researching System 1 thinking for product ads) but relying only on System 1 level thinking for predicting actual purchase may land researchers into the trap of believing, what Kahneman calls, “what you see is all there is” – or, using what you know to make assumptions about what you don’t know – which is illustrated succinctly in this two-minute video.

Research design is difficult because there is no easy solution to the discovery of how people think, especially in the complicated, irregular environment of the marketplace.  Whatever the solution, however, it necessitates an appreciation of the many facets of the human mind – the irrational and rational, emotional and cognitive.  It requires fast and slow thinking.

[1] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[2] From John Kearon in Earls, M. (2013). The big behavioural economics debate. Research World, 20–27.


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