Are you leading your participants to give you irrational responses? Implications from behavioral economics to understand consumer behaviors.

In my workshop on behavioral economics for market research professionals, I often ask:

“If your product was a dessert, is it more like a chocolate cake or a fruit salad?”

You can’t said neither.

This is an exercise to encourage you to think about your products in terms of the type of decision style your customers are more likely to engage in making their decision: fast or slow process. A chocolate cake represents a product that is chosen based on fast thinking (e.g., intuition, gut feeling, mental shortcut). It’s a product that attracts immediate attention, have less functionality and is purchased based on a quick decision.

A fruit salad represents a product that might not be appealing in first glance to a lot of people. But the more you think about it, the more appealing it becomes, especially for certain customer segments (e.g., those who are more health conscious). The products tend to have more complexity (e.g., the types and number of features) as well.

So, is your product more like a chocolate cake or fruit salad? I’d like you to take a couple of minutes to ponder on this.

As you might realize, most products are not exclusively chocolate cake or fruit salad. Instead, most products are somewhere in the middle. (One of my clients once said her product was like a fruit salad with a sprinkle of chocolate!) But it’s a good exercise to think about your products in terms of the decision process your customers use (or not to use) around your products because you will need to tap into the right decision process when asking about your products. 


For example, let’s think about a pair of tennis shoes. Is this more like a chocolate cake or a fruit salad? In other words, which process people are more likely to use to act in purchasing a pair of tennis shoes: fast or slow process?  

Most likely, people are relying on both process. And depending on the pair of shoes you have, people are more likely to rely on one process over another. For example, if they are looking for fashionable pair of tennis shoes, then consumers are likely to rely on fast process. If they are looking for shoes for their sporting event, then consumers are more likely to rely on the slow process.

It also depends on the features of the tennis shoes. When consumers are evaluating the functionality or price of tennis shoes, they are more likely to be relying on slow process. If they are deciding the styles or color of the shoes, then they are more likely to rely on fast process. 

"A pair of tennis shoes can be chocolate cake or fruit salad depending on which feature you are focusing on"

If your product is more like a chocolate cake:


If your product is more like a chocolate cake, it would be difficult to learn about consumer’s attitudes and behaviors if you ask them to rely on slow process to report their answers.

For example, your customers are likely to make up reasons if you ask them to think and elaborate why they chose chocolate cake over fruit salad. That is because they chose the product based on fast process, which isn’t exactly liked to language. (e.g., can you tell me why you like the color you like? It’s hard, isn’t it? That’s because liking is often based on fast process and cannot be described using words).

Also, if you ask your target segment how likely they are to have chocolate cake in the next month then you are likely to get unreliable data. It’s not because they don’t want to provide you with accurate data but because they don’t know themselves. Their responses are also likely to be affected by physical and emotional factors (e.g., how many times did you pick up a chocolate bar at cash register because you were happened to be hungry and stressed?) that make chocolate cake look appealing then.

So, if your product is more like a chocolate cake (or have chocolate cake like features), then stay away from research methods that encourage your participants to use slow process or words to describe their attitudes. For example, you wouldn’t want to use constant sum questions or conjoint studies to learn about how much they care about the style or color because those decisions are made mostly based on fast process.

You will also need to make sure to stay away from a research environment that is removed from your products (e.g., online survey). Instead, conduct research that taps into more unconscious process, such as implicit techniques or observations. Or conduct experiments that involve real choices rather than hypothetical choices.  

If your product is more like a fruit salad:


On the other hand, if your product is more like a fruit salad, then you could tap into the thinking part of the human brain, and, say, test which type of fruit (e.g., product feature) is more essential in the fruit salad and which are not. You might also learn the primary reasons why your customers are choosing your product (e.g., taste, freshness, health benefits) and use the insights to make your product more appealing. 

So, if your product is more like a fruit salad, does it mean that you don’t need to worry about fast process?

The answer is absolutely not! Even if your products were more like a fruit salad, it is very important that your product appeal to fast process. That is because we never turn off our fast process. Fast process is an automatic process, so, like it or not, it’s always there. It is also because consumers might be opting to choose based on the fast process even if they are not supposed to be.

Think about healthcare. Most people would say people are (or should be) relying on the slow process in healthcare shopping. That is, healthcare decision requires a good amount of time researching the options and the decision should reflect their unique needs. And they also seem to have existing attitudes on which features are more important (e.g., monthly premium) for them.

So, it should be easy picking the plan right? They’d do the necessary research and reflect their existing preference (e.g., low co-pay) to make an informed choice.  And with the amount of information and the number of healthcare options available in the market, you’d think they should be able to find the most suitable healthcare they are looking for.

Yet, in reality, healthcare market is filled with confusion and frustration.

One of the reasons, I believe, is that because there is a huge gap between individuals behavioral intentions and their actual behaviors. In many cases, providers are giving consumers what they *say* they want, not what they *actually* want.

For example, if you ask consumers (or traditional economists), they usually say they’d like to have more information and more options. That sounds good, right? The more information they have, the more informed choice they can make, and the more options they have, the more likely they can find the one that meets their unique needs.

But behaviorally speaking, more does not necessarily mean better.

When we have too much information or too many options, we freeze. We freeze and do one of two things: We either do not choose at all, or choose whatever the easiest one (e.g., default).

Think about the number of health plans available under Obamacare. There’s up to 169 plans available in one county alone. Too many options? I’d say so. 

I mean, who has the time to calculate the expected cost (e.g., expected number of doctor’s visit and expected amount of out-of-pocket) and reflect their preference (e.g., more coverage but ok with slightly higher monthly premium) to choose the most cost effective plan by going through each of 169 plans? I certainly don’t, and I know most of you don’t either. 

"Behaviorally speaking, more does not necessarily mean better"

So perhaps, they shouldn’t’ have reflected what consumers (or traditional economists) said about having more information and more options, at least not in the way they did.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t listen to your consumers. You absolutely should. But as a researcher, it is your responsibility to identify the gap between consumer’s intentions (as a rational human being) and their behaviors (as an irrational human being).  And you should take that into account when you are reflecting their voice in your business.

And if there’s a fair amount of gap between intentions and actual behaviors then look into decades of research on behavioral science to get insights on how people actually behave. For example, you notice that your consumers seemed to be overwhelmed with the amount of information and options. And their shopping experience satisfaction level isn’t great, and more consumers are leaving without any purchase. 

"It is your responsibility to identify the gap between what consumers say they want, and what they actually want"

Then you should consider cutting down the amount of information and options even if your consumers say they’d like detailed information and wide variety of options. Research in behavioral science shows that people are more likely to make a purchase, and purchase a better option if they had the right number of options. For example, some research indicates that the ideal amount of healthcare options should be about 5 (So, I’m not the only one who thinks 169 healthcare options is a bit too much!).

You might say you cannot attract consumers into the line of your products if you didn’t have a wide variety of options to present. Then you could have a wide variety of options available to them but be sure to provide help in choosing the right product for them. For example, create filters so that they can remove undesirable options. Or, give them a default (e.g., “most popular option”) so that they have somewhere to start with. Or better yet, provide a decision tool to walk them through the decision process step-by-step. Decision tools are getting more and more popular among public and private sectors, and I know that this trend will continue. For example, the UK government provides a decision tool that contains useful and impartial information for retirees regarding their pension pot and walks them through step-by-step how to choose the right life annuity (e.g., longevity insurance) for them.  This way, they can cater to individual’s unique needs for important financial decisions without limiting the number of offerings.

So, is your product more like a chocolate cake or fruit salad? And are you listening to the right side of your customer’s brains? If not, you might be hearing what they want you to hear, not something that reflect actual behaviors and true values. 

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