Is Consumer Behavior a Science?

Is Consumer Behavior a Science?

In the Fall of 1958 on a sunny Saturday morning, we headed out of the suburbs and into the city to Columbia University.

We were remarkably fortunate to be among the first recipients of scholarships to the first Saturday Scholar program of its kind. We have the Ford Foundation and Columbia to thank for this remarkable experience.

My friend, Dennis Hopkins, and I had lunch in the faculty lounge at Columbia with two Nobel Prize winning physicists that Saturday morning:

  • Polykarp Kusch, PhD
  • Isidor I Rabi, PhD

We talked endlessly about their work and where they saw it going in the future. Their job was to enlighten us about the way they approach science. Little did any of us realize that our lunch discussion foreshadowed a remarkable future of new thinking, what we now call “Outside the Box Thinking” – a new paradigm that would change the world.

These two scientific giants began to tell us about their passion – scoping out the inner dynamics and movements of atomic particles. Their work focused on a single atom and sought to understand and define how it works. They focused on what we call atomic particles today, the particles inside the atom. These particles are so small, they could only be seen with the benefit of an electron microscope.

In describing their work, one of them grabbed a napkin and enthusiastically drew a picture of what they see in their lab every day. These two scientists were animated, excited and passionate about their work. I can see this discussion clearly in my mind’s eye just as it were yesterday. I remember thinking they were leaving something out. Some of the particles they described were not in the pictures. We wanted to know why.

As they drew the particles into the picture, they made it clear that the particles were invisible even to an electron microscope because they are so miniscule. We wanted to know, how then, did these scientists know asked them how they know that these particles are there.

They said that they know that these particles are there even though they cannot see them, because when they introduce a new variable, such as a disruptive probe of some kind, or a change in temperature, the particles they can see do not behave as their model predicts they should behave. For months they puzzled over why and then they told us that they had to infer that there is another level of smaller particles in the atom that are influencing what they can see and measure. Further, they said that they have very good reason to believe that there are other layers of still smaller particles in the atom that they cannot see and may never be able to see.

In retrospect, I realize that these two scientists were two of the very first in the entire world to look for something invisible to the eye and microscope. It was remarkable shift in focus. Instead of looking at what can be seen, they spent most of their time looking for what they cannot see without any hope of eventually being able to see these miniscule small particles.

These two professors had just opened up a whole new world to us. They taught us that we could look for what we cannot see and that in doing so we can still be doing science making discoveries without being able to see the discoveries.

That day and those two Nobel Prize winning scientists made a permanent impact on me. The inferences that these scientists made are called constructs, because the scientist is constructing the existence of something he cannot see from his observations of the behavior of other particles that he is able to see. He cannot see the constructs, but he can infer their existence. Then, they continue by predicting the behavior of visible particles when he manipulating the invisible particles in new ways.

I gradually realized that my own work in consumer psychology is based on inferring the existence of dynamics in the minds and hearts of people that motivate and drive behavior, dynamics that no one can actually see, but are nevertheless real. They are real because they are scientific constructs that explain behavior that we see, but cannot explain without invoking the dynamics.

This story illustrates what science is all about.

My project teams work in the laboratory of consumer motivation, rather than in the laboratory of atomic particles. We have applied the same approach that the science of atomic particles follows to the field of consumer behavior and consumer motivation and have discovered that there is a level of consumer motivation that we cannot see, but is there nonetheless. We know that it is there, because we cannot explain consumer behavior without constructing these dynamics so we can communicate about and explain the behavior we observe.

This layer of consumer emotional needs provides an organized way to interpret and understand what consumers tell us about the decisions they make in our interviews with them. Over the years we have discovered 47 Emotional Needs that motivate people to buy things and to do things and 24 Emotional Barriers that block them from doing what you want them to do!

Notice that we now capitalize the term “Emotional Needs”, because we are referring to constructs that are specific to The Right Brain Approach. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be taking you “Out of the Box” by sharing some of our most important discoveries and most startling revelations into consumer behavior by elaborating on these Needs and Barriers and the interplay between them.


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Are you really listening?

Are You Really Listening?

Confirmation bias is when we look for things to confirm our preconceived ideas. It is human nature and we are all susceptible to this cognitive bias. If you are aware of this mindset you can avoid “selective listening”. It is easy for us to hear and remember the things that consumers say that confirm our preset ideas, while the things that contradict these ideas go unnoticed. Or worse, we explain them away. People are generally not aware of the extent to which their expectations can influence what they hear and how they hear it. Conventional wisdom, “the way things are done here,” prevailing paradigms and existing assumptions all too often guide and affect the listening process.

In an article written for Slate, Julia Galef, President and Cofounder of the Center for Applied Rationality, writes about maintaining scientific integrity: “…we need to actively look for signs our assumptions are wrong, because we won’t do so unprompted…One such sign is the feeling of surprise”. One of the primary objectives of qualitative research is surprise. Galef goes on to quote Daniel Gilbert, psychologist and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, who believes that “Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all”. In qualitative psychological research, consumers may say something that is entirely new. Or, you may discover that something you thought to be inconsequential is actually much more important to consumers than you had realized. Given that surprise is one of the primary objectives of qualitative research, then what could be more important than approaching the research with an open mind? We call this approach “suspension of belief” – a concerted effort to wipe your mental slate clean of biases. It is the foundation, the sine qua non, of qualitative research.

The insights and discoveries that come from qualitative consumer research fall into three categories. First, there are some things that we already know. Then, there are some things that are complete surprises. And finally, some of the most powerful and valuable insights fall into the category of “tacit knowledge.” Thanks to Michael Polanyi (1891 – 1976), Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester, tacit knowledge is best described as knowledge that is felt or intuited but never clearly identified or articulated. 2 All marketers have intuitive knowledge of their brands and their customers. All marketers use this knowledge to some degree. All marketers secretly want to use it more, but many are not sure how to get started. When we suspend belief and truly listen, we hear things that we may have wondered about or suspected, but never heard out loud. For the first time, this knowledge is expressed in words — and in the very words consumers use.

Articulating the tacit knowledge about consumers and brands is often one of the most powerful things that psychological research can bring to a business. Tacit knowledge is of little use in business because, by definition, it cannot be communicated, so no matter how rich the insights, without being able to communicate it to others, the knowledge is left untouched as an island unto itself. Once unveiled, tacit knowledge makes it possible for marketers to discuss what they feel, know and intuit about their market. “Suspension of belief” – putting aside confirmation bias – is built on the premise that searching for objective reality is irrelevant. How consumers perceive and construct their own reality is paramount. We look to Robert Burns, the Scottish poet and Renaissance man, as our inspiration, for it is to him that we owe the modern aphorism that “Perception is reality.”

“Oh, would some power give us the gift

To see ourselves as others see us!

It would from many a blunder free us,

And foolish notions.”


Robert Burns (1759–1796)

“To a Louse”



To see a product, a brand or a service as a consumer sees it is a powerful gift. It is also a simple concept, but it depends on suspension of belief and in-depth analysis of qualitative information.

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