Looking Ahead: Behavioral Science in 2011

As we continue our look ahead to 2011, surveying predictions for the market research industry, we come upon a recurring topic: the role of behavioral science as a supplement to – or even replacement for – market research.

The key to behavioral science in a market research role is actually rather simple: a great deal about a person’s intent and motivation can be gleaned from their past behavior. Combined with various psychological, neurological, and situational attributes (like demographics, lifestyle, etc), behavior can be predicted (or at least modeled to within a high degree of certainty.)

So why ask people questions, when their behavior has already given us the answer?

Dr. Aaron Reid over at Sentient Insight included this as his top prediction for 2011. As he put it:

Behavioral science will supplant traditional market research: Traditional market research is very good at describing what people have done, but has lacked insight into the true drivers of behavior. Plucking principles from psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience and behavioral economics has proven to provide an immediate boost to the bottom line by revealing specific methods for influencing customer behavior.

It makes sense, but of course, it’s controversial as well. Political polls tell us how people are likely to vote, but we still count on people to cast their ballot before we declare a winner. Does behavioral science account for the “X factors” that cause people to change their mind, often at the last minute? Human impulse? Unpredictability?

What do you think? Does a scientific approach to predicting outcomes and behavior give us the information we need to know about our customers? Or do we still need to ask the question?

About Joshua Hoffman

Joshua Hoffman is Technology Specialist at Microsoft and a frequent contributor to Research Access.


  1. Michael Hollon says:

    Thanks for the essay. I agree very much. I also am not optimistic that simply asking survey questions generates useful insights. I also believe that observing actual behavior is much more meaningful than collecting survey responses. But the challenge still remains for a researcher (and also a behavioral scientist) even after they stop focusing on survey responses and start focusing on behavior. And that challenge is how to collect the data from the observational research that is relevant and generated by truly qualified subjects/respondents. A behavioral scientist still needs a way to cost effectively find enough GENUINELY qualified subjects/respondents who are willing to allow their behavior to be monitored. I have to admit that after many years in this business, I, like many others, haven’t been able to really accomplish this. I would be humbly grateful for any thoughts on how to accomplish cost effective research on behavior (not just survey responses.)
    -Michael Hollon

  2. Hi. Predictability is simple. Find out their belief system. If a person gives you just a glimpse of their treasured beliefs, predictability will be more accurate. Not just the Bible or Quran, but their VIEWS about these books can be of tremendous help.

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