Behavioral economics theory approaches to use in marketing research 

Editor’s note: Laura Bayzle is a partner and Claire Murray is a research director at The Link Group, an insights consultancy based in Durham, N.C.

Behavioral economics has become a buzz topic in marketing. At its heart, behavioral economics is the study of how emotions impact rational decision-making. It’s an imperative concept for marketers to understand as consumers rarely make decisions using just their rational brain. Therefore, the role of the “irrational brain” in decision-making needs to be considered as well. 

Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioral economics, popularized the theory of System 1 and System 2 thinking and brought it to life in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). In research, we often ask respondents “How do you feel?” This taps into their System 2 “rational” thinking where they rationalize their answer and emotional response. The answers we get from this exercise are helpful, but it may not give us the full story of how the respondent feels or what actually drives decision-making. That driver may lie in System 1 thinking, which is the unconscious “gut” instinct that we rely on for almost all our day-to-day choices. These are emotions that we may not even be consciously aware of, which means we can’t always articulate them when we are asked “How do you feel?” That means we, as market researchers, are missing part of the picture.

Incorporating techniques to understand latent emotions into market research allows us to tap into that System 1 thinking. And if we can better understand those emotions that drive day-to-day choices, we can add more richness and nuance to our findings, helping our clients make better informed decisions. There are several exercises and techniques marketing researchers can use to help uncover the more emotional side of decision-making, but these approaches often take more time and energy to incorporate and analyze which can increase the project price. So, what are the right situations in which to propose and incorporate latent emotions so that it truly adds value and texture to traditional research and is worth the extra time and cost to the client?

We’ve been incorporating latent emotions in marketing research since 2017 and have found a few triggers to keep an eye out for when considering whether a study is the right one to incorporate techniques that pull out that “gut” emotion.

Gaining more information from qualitative and quantitative feedback 

We had a client team that wanted to understand how adults who suffer from acne felt about it, how they treated it and where they looked for treatment information. In qualitative research, we heard that adults had largely accepted their acne. While they were frustrated by breakouts, they indicated that they had learned to live with, and accept, their skin condition. However, the qualitative feedback gave us some nuggets, offering more to the story.

In follow-up research, we used a technique to get to the “gut level” emotion and what we uncovered was different from what we originally heard. The feelings that came up were clustered around sadness, disgust, anger and fear and there were fewer feelings around acceptance. This showed us that while respondents say they have accepted their acne, acceptance is aspirational. In reality, they feel overwhelmingly negative emotions at a latent level. 

When faced with research where we feel there may be underlying emotions that can be difficult for a respondent to articulate – or which they may not be consciously aware of – using behavioral economics techniques can help us dig under the surface. 

Understanding what people say vs. what they do

We had a client who wanted to better understand those who were hesitant of the COVID-19 vaccine. In particular, they wanted to know why those who stated they were against the vaccine ultimately decided to vaccinate themselves. In research, we heard a lot of the common arguments against the COVID-19 vaccination: negative feelings about vaccine mandates, perceived lack of efficacy and surprise that additional boosters were needed after the initial vaccine. Despite sharing these objections, the group ultimately vaccinated. Their concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine didn’t change, so why did they say (and believe) one thing but do another?

We uncovered emotions that indicated vaccine decisions were being driven by social dynamics. Respondents felt pressure from their communities and social circles to get vaccinated, despite not completely believing in the vaccination cause. They weren’t necessarily happy about getting vaccinated. This led to feelings of resignation as one respondent shared, “If I get it, I’ll have acceptance by the standards of my community.” Uncovering this additional layer had big implications for how our client thought through strategies and messaging for future vaccination campaigns.

Exploring nuances between different respondent groups

In the vaccine research referenced above, we found in traditional quant research that youths and adults had similar reactions to the COVID-19 booster. At first glance, it didn’t seem that there was a difference between these populations: both groups were annoyed and surprised about needing to get a booster.

We wanted to explore these respondent groups further because knowing if there were differences between these groups would have major implications for how the client targeted its messaging campaign. We layered behavioral economics into the research and saw that these emotions of annoyance and surprise were felt more intensely by youths and they were annoyed and surprised for different reasons than adults. While adults were annoyed that the lingering of the pandemic meant they needed to get another shot, youths were annoyed both because of perceptions that the initial vaccine wasn’t fully effective and that not everyone was doing their part to keep society safe. 

A deeper understanding of latent emotional drivers helped our client understand these nuances so they could tailor messages to different age groups. By resetting expectations about the role of boosters and by informing youths of the risks to them and those around them of not vaccinating, vaccine acceptance in this population may improve.  

Latent emotional drivers and the future of market research

Behavioral economics theory offers a variety of ideas that can help add context and richness to market research. An understanding of latent emotional drivers can be particularly insightful when helping clients understand how their targets make important decisions and deserves to be included in qual and quant approaches. In our experience, these research approaches are not one-size-fits-all, but by using guiding principles we can strategically employ these techniques to the benefit of clients seeking a holistic approach to decision drivers.