Beyond the Behavior-plus-“why” Approach: Personal Meaning as Insight

Reskid-waterslideearchers are desperate to understand behavior. Health researchers want to know what leads to a lifetime of smoking and how the daily smoking routine affects the quality of life. Education researchers examine the behavior of model teaching environments and contemplate best practices. Psychologists look for signs of social exclusion among victims of brain injuries. Marketing researchers chase an elusive explanation for consumer behavior, wanting to know product and service preferences in every conceivable category. And, if that were not enough, researchers of all ilk, to a lesser or greater extent, grapple with an often ill-fated attempt to predict (and shape) behaviors to come.

But researchers have come to appreciate that behavior is not enough. It is not enough to simply ask about past behavior, observe current behavior, or capture in-the-moment experiences via mobile. Behavior only tells part of a person’s story and, so, researchers passionately beef-up their research designs to include “why” – focusing on not just what people do but why they do it. “Why,” of course, is often phrased as “what,” “how,” or “when” questions – “What was going on at the time you picked up your first cigarette?” – but, whatever the format, the goal is the same, i.e., to get beyond behavior and understand the motivations, the thinking (conscious or not) that ultimately lead to certain actions.

All of this would be fine and good except that the behavior-plus-“why” approach often fails. Many researchers have been pursuing the explanation and prediction of behavior because the bubbles of the “ah ha!” moments burst upon subsequent new revelations in human behavior.

The behavior-plus-“why” approach fails because it is a transactional approach to understanding the human experience. It reduces what people do – smoke cigarettes, teach in a certain way, show signs of social exclusion, purchase Coke over Pepsi – and their motivations to a stimulus-response arrangement – My parents smoked, so I became a smoker; I experimented with teaching methods until I found something that worked; as a brain-injury victim, I feel socially isolated because people treat me differently; I buy Coke products because I grew up in Atlanta.

The behavior-plus-“why” transactional approach falls short of true insight because it doesn’t account for personal meaning. It doesn’t account for the fact that each individual associates their own personal meaning to any given behavior or thought. Yet personal meaning is what researchers strive for to honestly understand what lies beneath behavior or a construct of interest.

  • What does the experience of smoking cigarettes mean to you? How does it make you feel? Who do you smoke with? How does it define your sense of being?
  • How do you know that a teaching method is “working”? What does it make you think about? What does it mean to you when you feel “success”?
  • What does “social exclusion” mean to your personally? How does it manifest itself? What are the ramifications you experience from “social exclusion”? What would you change, if you could, and how would that make things “better”?
  • What part of you is satisfied by purchasing Coke products? What role does it play in your life, and how does this role relate to other aspects of your life?

Going beyond the behavior-plus-“why” approach is something I teach in focus group training. In a recent workshop with corporate employees, I tried to instill the idea that there is personal meaning behind every participant comment. At the conclusion of moderator role playing, a trainee expressed her frustration when she asked someone in her group of employees to suggest improvements to the office environment. To the trainee’s horror, the participant suggested adding a water slide to the workplace to provide an element of “fun.” A water slide? Rather than exploring the personal meaning of a water slide for this particular person, the trainee just ended the group discussion wondering to herself why anyone would want a water slide at the office. What she didn’t know – but then learned – is that it was not a water slide that this person necessarily wanted at the workplace as much as the positive feelings associated with a water slide. It was these positive associations and dimensions that the participant wanted in the work environment that just happened to be articulated as “water slide.”

Finding personal meaning takes time. It requires concentrated time with research participants to explore and understand their behavior and motivations through their words; exploring what those words mean to them and how those words capture the personal meaning of the thoughts conveyed. Finding personal meaning also takes time (and creativity) during analysis and interpretation of outcomes, particularly when many participants are involved.

Such an effort expends valuable time, energy, and resources. But it is certainly better than coming away from the research only to recommend that the client add water slides to the workplace.

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