Thinking with your gut – and how qualitative market research can help us do this

Everything you need to know

Let’s start with a little thought experiment: Imagine you are a turkey. You live on a farm and every day at the same time the farmer comes to feed you. You will be cautious at the beginning. You can’t be sure whether you can really trust the man in the blue trousers. After a few days, however, they get over themselves and – despite a queasy feeling – approach the master and are rewarded with delicious food straight away. You therefore repeat this behavior over the following weeks, collect the tasty reward and your initial insecurity seems to gradually disappear. But then it’s the day before Thanks-Giving and as you can imagine, the daily feeding will not end well for you this time.

Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer, Director of the Department of Adaptive Behavior and Cognition and Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute, used the story of the turkey to illustrate the limits and pitfalls of quantitative data-based action. Because, like the turkey, algorithmic forecasting models also run the risk of predicting the future based solely on the past. But haven’t we learned: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior”? Isn’t the past the best data material for drawing a valid picture of the future? Actually, yes, but this maxim only has limited validity. Because the future only remains predictable as long as we find ourselves in contexts of fixed rules and recurring phenomena, i.e. if the future can actually be extrapolated from the patterns of the past. However, if we find ourselves – like the turkey – in contexts that are characterized by unpredictable events and general uncertainty, a firm belief in the predictability of the future can create false expectations of the future and its predictability.

But does this mean, conversely, that we have to remain in a state of ignorance? That the future ultimately remains a product of chance and that we have no chance of consciously helping to shape it? This would be a sobering realization, as companies are more often than ever responsible for constantly renewing themselves, voluntarily entering into contexts of high uncertainty and daring to innovate.

Don’t panic. Gigerenzer also provides a solution to this apparent problem in his talk. For him, the conscious application of heuristics – by which psychologists mean mental shortcuts, simple rules of thumb or the conscious consideration of one’s own intuition when making a decision – represents a practical alternative to data-based management practice. If the turkey had listened to his gut feeling from the start, he would probably have escaped the axe.

However, an important prerequisite for being able to make correct intuitive judgments is that you have acquired a certain level of expertise in the respective domain. Our brain has the amazing ability to apply existing expert knowledge to issues within a very short time. We are often not yet able to specifically name why we think an idea is good or bad. But our gut feeling already gives us a clear signal as to whether an idea has potential. Because the processing speed of our brain is much faster than we think. Within fractions of a second, we compare and interpret information – taking into account all the information available to us. However, this usually happens unconsciously and without us intentionally pursuing it. However, we can only make a rational assessment by using considerable cognitive resources and without being able to access the full wealth of intuitive knowledge. What at first sounds like the message of a spiritual self-discovery course has actually been empirically proven many times, for example on the basis of judges’ verdicts.

However, if we rely on our own intuitive judgment, a problem arises. If we cannot clearly state why we think an idea is good, we find it difficult to convince others of this idea. Because persuasion is still based on rational arguments, which we unfortunately lack. It is not uncommon for a worse alternative to win out over the perceived best, simply because it is easier to find arguments for it. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to share your gut feeling with others?

Qualitative market research provides a suitable approach here. This is because it creates a space in which product ideas and people who will one day use these products come together. And even though we may not all be designers or product developers, we are experts in dealing with people. We can sense joy, confusion or anger. What is perhaps difficult to verbalize rationally becomes empathetically and intuitively comprehensible when observing the interaction between user and product. And this is also a value of qualitative market research: a symbiosis of language, meaning and action is created in the interaction with the test subjects. Emotions can be observed and their causes explored. An active process of understanding takes place. Such moments are priceless, especially for the client. Because when he accompanies the implementation of qualitative studies, for example in the observation room or via video link, they are able to experience the effect of his product idea on the target group for themselves. We therefore always recommend that our customers accompany our studies at least in part. This not only creates a common understanding, but also additional added value for the client. Observing and understanding actively trains your own gut feeling, which is almost priceless, especially in complex decision-making situations. With this in mind, we look forward to welcoming you to our observation room in the near future.