The Gedrankenexperiment

Beer Samplers at Brewery

As we did last year, all through January, we featured some “Lost Gems” from 2014 — some great posts that deserved to get wider notice than they did the first time out. Here’s the last in this series.

As market researchers we like to classify people and in particular we like to classify how people make decisions. However, we have a dreadful habit of thinking that there are different types of people who think and make decisions in these different ways.  We define segments like loyalists and switchers, impulse v considered shoppers.

The reality is that how we feel so often dictates how we choose; and our ever changing mood states mean we are all manner of different types of shopper all rolled into one.

We might have…our stress choice, our curious choice, our distracted choice, our ‘I’ve just been paid’ choice, our practical choices, our happy choices, our don’t care choices etc….

The Process of Observing Things Changes Things

All these different thinking process are all bundled together and co-exist in a quantum style mix – we are all or nothing of these or a random mix at any one point in time. It’s difficult to determine, and – just as Schrodinger pointed out – just the process of observing changes things.  You ask someone why they have purchased something and it immediately puts people into an analytical thinking framework, far removed from the mind state they might have been in when they made the purchase.

The biggest problem for market researchers trying to understand decision making processes is how to simulate these different moods to be able to effectively measure these different choice situations and how to take account of observational biasing effects.

Some mental states are easier to evoke than others.  The price conscious mood state and the impulse mood state are actually quite easy to simulate in say an online piece of research. You just ask people to either shop with a price conscious budget or ask them to perform the choices quickly.

Some of the others, though, are a lot harder to evoke. For example our distracted shopping mind-set is an important one, as when we go shopping it’s likely that we will often get distracted and have other things on our minds while we do it e.g. I am having a relationship crisis and as I go round the supermarket I am thinking mostly about that and making some choices on auto pilot.  What are these choices like? Are they the same as when we are, say, in a hurry? I think not. The choices would probably be the more habitual ones and could perhaps be more reward driven and may also be quite impulsive.

How you evoke these mind-set in a survey is a difficult one.  If you ask people why they bought something their rational thinking processes kick in and what you get out is in effective cognitive dissonance – we can shape our reasons for purchasing around what makes us feel good so often.

Don’t get me wrong; this is useful information in itself. But it can hide other less conscious factors that for many marketers are the factors we are most interested in.

E.g., to say “I bought it because it was cheap” could hide some resentment to the purchase. In a sense this statement is an excuse for buying it or hide some guilty feelings about buying a brand that is viewed as extravagant.

We are Bayesian Decision-making Engines Seeking Happiness

It has been observed that when we buy things we make a Bayesian trade off prediction about what will make us most happy. On one side might be the price, how long a product will last and the risks involved in making that choice, on the other side are the benefits that the product delivers.

So to try and untangle some of this, I have been thinking about a new research technique. A form of self-observed Choice ethnography, where we get people to try to mentally map out all the different thinking protocols involved in making a decision for different products.  A sort of helicopter viewpoint on their own behaviour, the sort of thinking that takes place when you sit in front of a therapist and really try to self-observe your own thoughts and feelings.

To test this idea out, I conducted a Gedankenexperiment, a thought experiment on myself to see how easy it was to self-observe my decision making protocols.

What I found was that the more I thought about it, the easier and more interesting a process it became….

My Gedankenexperiment

I started to observe my own behaviour and traced out my decision making on a variety of different types of purchases.

I started out by imagining my choice of beer in a pub, thinking about it. Here are some of the potential factors that I decided were influential in my choice:

What I fancy,
What choices they have available
What others are drinking
What I had last time
How much I had already drunk.

Interestingly, when I examined my decision making behaviour in a pub, the first thing I learned, was that it was never about what it costs.

Even more interestingly I realized that when I go into my two local pubs,  in each one I am a completely different type of shopper: In one, perhaps because it is more conventional with a limited choice of beer, I always buy exactly the same brand of German lager. I never vary my choice of drink ever…I thought about it and realized I am buying instant relaxation. That brand has been ingrained into the experience.

In the other pub, which has a fuller range of craft beers, I never, ever buy the same beer twice and certainly never ever buy lager.  I take pleasure out of trying different things and so I move from one pub being beer monogamous to another where I am completely polygamous.

I then started to think about my choice of a beer in a supermarket. These are the criteria that I process in my mind:

What they cost
What they have
What l like
What I have not tried before
What looks nice

In the supermarket the look of the beer became paramount compared to the pub where it was the taste. Additionally, in the supermarket cost suddenly becomes near the top of the list.

Then I thought about my choice of wine in supermarkets…

A weird thing about my wine shopping is that I realise I decide based on trying to game the system as here there is actually too much choice… what I do is I look at all the brands on discount and try to find the ugliest bottle. My reasoning is that is probably the best tasting wine but it’s on discount because nobody wanted to buy it because of the ugly packaging.

Next, I thought about my choice of shampoo. This boils down to:

What they have
What it costs
What I can bear to buy

I end up picking the cheapest brand that has the least offensive packaging. But it often takes several minutes to decide.

Compared to choice of deodorant & toothpaste….do they have Dove/Colgate, is it on offer, yes but my decision making time is seconds. In both these categories I have made up my mind as to what brand to buy and have stopped deciding.

This went on and I examined my thinking process across a wide range of product purchases, trying as best as possible to observe some of the less conscious factors.

I realise, for example, that my choice of confectionary was triggered often by childhood associations. would literally buy a chocolate bar to try and feel like I felt in a situation when I was younger.

What I Learnt When Thinking about My Own Behavior

  1. How dramatically varied it is, I could be described as both a loyalist and a switcher. From a market research point of view it would be almost impossible to classify me as one thing – and I am sure the same could be said for anyone.
  2. I realise I was able – by simply observing my own thinking process – to gather a range of personal “incites”.
    • I buy old things in new places where I don’t feel comfortable
    • In new places where I feel comfortable I buy new things
    • In familiar places I buy new things to break out of the routine sometimes
    • I buy a limited portfolio of things if I am unsatisfied with the portfolio on offer generally but hold resentments to the products I buy and so am not loyal
    • I am an extremely loyal purchaser once I have made up my mind about what is the best product
    • When I have not made up my mind I vacillate
    • When there are more than one product I like in a category I sleep around, so to speak, and can be very promiscuous (wine is a good example)
    • When I am buying something from a category for the first time aesthetics control so much of my decision making protocols – what it looks like is key and I rely on design cue that basically say that product understands me
    • When I don’t like any of the packaging this is when I become an instantly disgruntled shopper
  3. The process, once I got into it, was fun, easy and quite cathartic, and I am sure with a bit of explanation anyone could use this same process easily on themselves, but it does take time and thought.

I am left with the thought that this would be a very interesting process to do on a larger scale, so that is what I am looking at doing next….watch this space.

Jon Puleston is the vice president of innovation for Lightspeed GMI and an award-winning innovator on improving the quality of online surveys.


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