Does Attitude Matter?

Maybe attitude doesn’t matter.  Maybe how people feel about any given topic or how they think through a decision about whether to act one way or another are irrelevant to Soupresearch design.  Maybe all that really matters is behavior.  Maybe behavior is more important than attitudes because users of the research care only about what someone does, not what someone is feeling or thinking in conjunction with the behavior.  If true, the implications narrow the focus for research design and suggest, for example, that

  • the “success” of social programs, such as those to feed the poor, can simply be measured by meals served, or
  • the effectiveness of youth health initiatives can be defined solely by the incidence of risk behavior, or
  • consumer preferences can be determined exclusively by their online shopping activities, or
  • employee satisfaction can be fully evaluated by the number of missed or “sick” days, or
  • an assessment of a person’s belief system can be obtained by just looking at how often they attend a place of worship.

Maybe – with the growing ability to track where people are when and correlate their digital activities with something of interest – behavior-oriented research designs are the wave of the future.  Lex Olivier and Mario van Hamersveld think so.  They take this position within the context of marketing research in their recent article appearing in ESOMAR’s Research World, “Will Market Research Have a Future?”  “Increasingly,” they state, “market researchers will not be measuring attitudes but behavior: customer traffic, mouse clicks, brain activity, views and facial expressions, plus data mining.”  They go on to say that “finding an explanation [that is, looking at attitudes] will be replaced by searching for coherence [of behavior].”

But can we honestly understand why and how social programs for feeding the poor succeed by only looking at how many are fed?  How can organizations sustain and expand on these types of social programs if they don’t also understand the particular human (psychological, emotional, as well as physical) needs that these programs can address?

How can service providers and manufacturers continue to prosper without continuing to anticipate consumers’ needs by way of their knowledge of the purchase-decision-thinking process?  Consumers may visit multiple websites before purchase and display any number of “facial expressions” in mock trials, but what are the true considerations and emotions behind them, and how do companies use that information to stay a step ahead?

Someone’s attendance at a place of worship may or may not play a role in their personal belief system; and, if so, to varying degrees.  A bigger question is whether behavior is even a relevant concept when assessing belief systems.

How can any researcher forget the people – their attitudes as well as behavior – that define the researcher’s reason for being?  (Marketing) researchers may hope for faster-cheaper-better research designs by way of digital metrics but researchers have chosen a life devoted to understanding people’s attitudes, how they think, and using that to improve some aspect of the lived experience.

Stanley Capela, an evaluator and the Vice President of Quality Management at HeartShare, expresses these thoughts in a recently produced video titled “The HeartShare Way”

“My major, major problem right now is that everybody is focused on performance metrics…[but] there’s people behind the metrics…We have to realize that those numbers are people [and by doing that] we end up making a better society…”

Whether working for a non-profit or for-profit organization, all researchers by definition care deeply about the attitudes that shape the individuals who are the essential ingredient in research design.

Image captured from: http://trondhjemlutheran.org/2015/02/lenten-soup-suppers/

One comment

  1. Interesting question, and article.

    But, there is another fairly important piece that is missing from this discussion about the role that attitudes and beliefs play when researching behaviour. Behaviour change is a process, it is not a single thing that exists in isolation. Certainly the end goal is behaviour, but that doesn’t make behaviour the whole story.

    There are numerous models of behaviour change that have been put forward over the years to explain all sorts of behaviours. Of course there are lots of questions about all those models, because after all, they are just models. But, they give us some pretty useful insights into what it takes to achieve an ultimate behavioural outcome.

    My work predominantly involves providing qualitative research based insights to assist in the development of social marketing campaigns aimed at changing health and other social behaviours … quitting smoking, taking up exercise, adopting a healthy diet, reducing domestic violence, and many others. And in each of these cases there is an end behaviour that is of most interest. But along the way there are vital steps towards those end behaviours that are necessary. Just as an example, the Health Belief Model of behaviour change is a simple, tried and true classic. It says that for me to make a change in my health behaviours I first have to learn that my current behaviour is not good for me, then I need to find out that there is an alternative that is preferable, and then I need to understand that changing to the alternative will get me an outcome that I want, and accept that I am able to make the change. Each of these steps involves increasing awareness, changing beliefs and changing attitudes, and each of these steps is getting me closer to the desirable behaviour. So, it is possible to measure my progression towards the ultimate behaviour change by understanding the incremental changes in my knowledge, beliefs and attitudes.

    Without knowing these progressive steps along the way, social marketing of health messages risks missing out on achieving the end goals, because it won’t be able to establish the knowledge, belief and attitudinal changes that will eventually contribute to those goals.

    So, yes, attitude matters, and there will always be an important place for attitudes in qualitative research.

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