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Market research tends to focus on our heads rather than our hearts. We have piles of data but it tends to lack deep insight into what really drives people to do the things they do. Empathy and emotion – a critical aspect of humanity – is what we need to better understand.

Every year new technology and software bring the promise of transforming voluminous data into powerful insights that are delivered right to our desktop in record time. However, these advancements, too often simply an updated version of the same old thing, continue to fall short when an in-depth understanding of human behavior is needed.

In the world of qualitative research, we can now reach people all over the world with a click of a button. But while mobile devices and internet connectivity have provided unprecedented access into the lives of consumers, the ways we ask people about their lives essentially remains unchanged. We seek answers, so we ask questions and count responses. As it turns out, not everything that counts can be counted and not all questions are answered by questioning.

Borrowing techniques that revolutionized police investigations

The reality is that we all have unconscious barriers that prevent us from sharing why we do the things we do. There are things people can’t or won’t share – often it is simply because they don’t understand their own behavior. And while we do get answers to the questions we ask, the answers we are given often aren’t the answers we need. So how do we get insights when people have such a hard time sharing them?

The field of criminal investigation faced a similar challenge when interviewing eyewitnesses. When asked to remember the scene of a crime, observers couldn’t (or wouldn’t) share certain details when asked direct questions.

The breakthrough came with a shift in approach from asking questions about an experience to helping people reconstruct memories of an experience. By applying a technique called the Cognitive Interview, the memory retrieval process was enhanced and new details were revealed.

Revealing what people can’t or won’t say in conventional research

As you search for memories of a particular event, your brain state progresses to resemble the state it was in when you initially experienced the event. Memory retrieval is like revisiting the past; brain patterns that are long gone can be revived by the memory system. While the emotional aspect of the Cognitive Interview may not be of interest to the police, it can be of great interest to market researchers since it opens the door to what people can’t or won’t typically say.

By focusing on detailed memories, this approach generates more vivid and textured narratives of consumer experiences. It is a way to get past conscious thought to get at the heart of what drives human behavior.

While it sounds a bit unconventional, this approach has been used by a wide range of organizations across the globe and has proven incredibly effective in market research, particularly by revealing how people feel about their experiences during key interactions with a brand, product or category.

When a deeper, more emotional understanding is needed, Cognitive Interviewing is the answer. The stories collected during these interviews are a kind of poetry that enables us to hear our customers in a way that is not available to us through most qualitative research.