For a few decades now, social scientists and researchers have become increasingly aware of what’s known as the question-behavior effect. Also called the self-prophecy effect, this phenomenon was validated most famously in a 1987 study that found voter participation increased when respondents were asked whether they planned to vote. The effect is that when you ask someone to predict their behavior, they tend to not only answer in a socially acceptable way, but also perform the very action you’re inquiring about. In order to be viewed in a favorable light, people will respond that they would act in whatever way is perceived as most decent by society, and even behave accordingly. Essentially, asking a person about their behavior has the potential to influence it in the future. So what does this mean for market research?
Ask and You Shall Receive… a Self-Conscious Answer
In truth, market research has already been shown to affect consumer behavior. A 1993 study revealed that responses detailing purchase intent can indeed help predict behavior, due to a marked increase in subsequent purchasing rate. Simply asking these participants about their intent to purchase actually increased their likelihood to purchase in the near future.
But the study also articulated that a number of factors can influence this translation from intention to behavior. So how does asking questions influence the mental outlook that drives behavior? One explanation is that answering a question about our intentions or behavior makes our related attitudes more accessible in our minds, causing us to relate the behavior that aligns with our socially conditioned attitudes. This account ties in with the familiar bias of social desirability, which is a common symptom of traditional focus groups in which respondents hear each other’s answers. Another theory is that questioning our behavior simply causes us to think about performing it, making us more likely to actually do it in the future.
So Is All My Research Doomed?
Hardly! You can’t fight psychology, and you need to ask questions in order to acquire consumer insights. Asking people about performing a target behavior always has the potential to influence their future performance of that behavior, so this bias should always be factored into your research report: it can help prepare stakeholders and colleagues for this phenomenon’s impact on your analysis. But there is one option that may help you reduce its impact, and that’s online market research. Allowing for digital responses with relative anonymity may put respondents more at ease and willing to answer the way they will truly behave, as opposed to the response they might give if they felt personally judged by others, inducing research-influenced behavior.
We’ve always known that there are any number of factors that can influence your research and skew your results. But being aware of and acknowledging their potential impact will help you adapt to and avoid their more harmful effects. For an example of the thoughtful and honest answers an online research group can provide, check out the executive summary below, exploring the attitudes of Millennials and non-Millennials towards digital banking.