Avoiding Cognitive Biases in Market Research:
Most people like to think of themselves as objective and rational, capable of evaluating all of the information available in order to make the right decision at the right time. In reality, our decision making is often flawed, influenced by cognitive biases.
A cognitive bias is an error in information processing or decision making. These biases are most often a result of the shortcuts that we use to speed up or simplify everyday decision making. During the past few decades, psychologists have made impressive strides in identifying, classifying and experimentally triggering hundreds of cognitive biases. So, now we know what they are and how they are triggered, how do can work around them?
Below is a summary of the biases that are most commonly triggered by traditional market research and some tips to help you avoid them:
This is the tendency to rely too heavily on one piece of information when making decisions. Once the initial anchor is set, future responses are made by trying to adjust away from that anchor. This bias is most likely to be triggered in studies that require numeric responses or ask respondents to answer a series of very similar questions.
- Beware of including unrelated information or sample answers that respondents may use as an anchor for their responses.
- When gathering numeric responses, try using open-ended questions instead of prompting respondents with numeric ranges.
- When gathering responses to a series of similar questions, try splitting the questions over time or introducing filler questions to prevent respondents from anchoring on their initial response.
This is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events that are easier to access (a.k.a are more “available”) in memory. Availability in memory can be influenced by how recent, unusual or emotionally charged memories are. This bias is most likely to be triggered in studies that ask respondents to recount how often they’ve done something in the past and/or how likely they are to do so again in the future.
- When asking a series of questions about how often respondents have done something in the past, first prompt people to consider the whole period e.g. “Casting your mind back over the past year…”.
- Avoid using vague terms for the frequency of past events e.g. asking ‘How often do you eat cereal?’. Instead, specify a date range that respondents should use when answering the question e.g. ‘How often have you eaten cereal in the past month?’
- Try to make the date range as short and recent as possible e.g. instead of asking ‘How often have you eaten cereal in the past month?’, try asking ‘How often have you eaten cereal in the past week?’ or ‘Did you eat cereal this morning?’.
This is the tendency to over-report our socially desirable traits or behaviours and under-report our socially undesirable traits or behaviours. This bias is most likely to be triggered in studies that ask respondents to report on socially sensitive topics e.g. personal income, exercise, eating habits, mental health or illegal activities.
- Ask respondents to estimate the most likely response for their social subgroup, or for society as a whole. For example, instead of posing a direct question: ‘Healthy eating is very important to me: strongly agree—strongly disagree’‘, try posing an indirect question: ‘Healthy eating is very important to most people my age: strongly agree—strongly disagree’ . This approach allows respondents to indicate their true preference without admitting to socially undesirable characteristics.
- Try offering respondents real-world outcomes that are related to the socially sensitive topic of interest e.g. if you’re interested in healthy eating habits, ask people to choose between a fruit basket or muffin basket as their reward for participating.
Researcher: Know Thyself
Don’t think cognitive biases apply to you? There’s actually a cognitive bias for that: it’s called the Bias Blind Spot. If you’re willing to accept that even the humble researcher is not immune to cognitive biases, the next question is, how can we protect against them when conducting research?
This is the tendency for researchers to believe and publish results that agree with their expectations for the outcome of a study, and to disbelieve or discard results that conflict with their expectations.
- Try to find someone with no vested interest in the project to review the raw data and point out any weaknesses in your findings.
- Always keep in mind that disconfirming the hypothesis of a study can be just as valuable to your company or clients as confirming it. Try to counter this bias by creating a culture that rewards researchers equally for findings that confirm and disconfirm their initial hypotheses.
Observer Expectancy Effect:
This is the tendency for researchers to unconsciously manipulate a study or misinterpret the data in order to find the result that they expected.
- When creating a survey, ask a friend or colleague to read over your draft questions to make sure there are no logical errors or leading questions.
- When conducting a focus group, use a moderator who has no vested interest in the project.