How Behavioural Economics and Qualitative Research can Work Together

This is the second of two posts about using Behavioural Economics (B.E.) and qualitative research together. The first post described ways in which qualitative research could benefit from a ‘broadened’ view of B.E. This second post describes how B.E. and qualitative research can work together, by making the best of both worlds.

B.E. and qualitative research can work well together because they share a parent – contemporary social science.

B.E. was revolutionary because it applied the same social science to economics that has been used by social-science trained researchers for decades.  ‘Everything is relative’, ‘people are influenced by what others think’, and ‘behaviour is best researched in context’, are all part of the B.E. canon and have also been part of the best kind of qualitative approach for a long time. 


Having said that, qualitative researchers should not rest on our laurels. It takes work and a sound understanding of B.E. to adapt qualitative research methods to the specific perspective of B.E.

Three ways B.E. and qualitative research can be super effective together

  1. Initial qualitative research can improve B.E. experiments and interventions.
  2. Qualitative research can be designed specifically to meet the needs of B.E. projects.
  3. Qualitative research can be analysed and interpreted, specifically to be of value to B.E.


I explain each of these below.

How qualitative research can improve B.E. experiments

  1. Identify the frame:  It will help you to identify the language that the target market uses to describe the issue you are researching – the words and phrases they use will reveal how people are framing the issue.
  2. Explore the effect of context. We know theoretically that context creates the meaning of an event, but we need to talk to people in those contexts to understand the real-life details.\
  3. Reveal beliefs, especially about identity, and especially how self-beliefs vary from person to person. Qualitative research is the method you use to find out what segments of the population believe, especially what they believe about themselves and how they make sense of the world.  People who think of themselves as optimistic will face retirement planning for example in one way, while others who define themselves as ‘realists’ (as pessimistic people tend to) will plan differently.

How to design qualitative research so it meets the needs of B.E. projects

To meet the objectives described above, make sure that you

  • Conduct conversational qualitative research, because it is through conversation that people reveal their own language and through the use of language they reveal their cognitive frame. The best methods for conversational research are face to face, phone or via webcam.
  • Structure the interview for discussion to allow the moderator or interviewer to tease out ideas and go back over topics until he or she feels she has understood what is going on.  This is an important point. Qualitative researchers don’t unquestioningly accept the answers they are given. In conversational qualitative research, the moderator or interviewer is right there, ready to question people about their answers, to ask for clarification or even challenge people about what they have said.  The kind of responses we receive qualitatively are therefore very different from the generally superficial answers given in survey free text questions.
  • Avoid this mistake. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that qualitative research works the same as quantitative research, but with smaller samples.  It doesn’t.  For example, qualitative researchers don’t rely on direct questions. Direct questions are much less common in qualitative research than they are in quantitative research. This is because qualitative researchers have known for decades (because of that same social science ….) that such questions can yield inaccurate answers.  Instead, we use stimulus material, ‘third-person’ questions and activities of different kinds to name just a few.
  • Be open to the extra techniques that qualitative researchers use. Some qualitative researchers – including us  - have access to a range of concepts drawn from some of the other social sciences, especially linguistics, sociology, anthropology and culture studies. These include Symbolism, Ritual, Semiotics, and Discourse analysis.

How qualitative research should be analysed and interpreted, to be of value to B.E.

Perhaps I left the most important to last? Qualitative researchers have a choice of interpretive frameworks to use when analysing their data.  We can use for example:

  • A ‘customer journey’ framework, so that we interpret the research findings in terms of process, and ‘pain points’; or
  • A framework based on B.E, drawing on a B.E. concept such as ‘satisficing.  When people are using your product, service or information are they maximizing or satisficing?  If they are maximising, they will spend time and/or money making sure they get the absolute best product or service, and all the information they need. If they are satisficing, they will settle for something less than perfect, perhaps to save time, money or effort. Some people satisfice in order to retain their social standing. 

One of the questions to resolve if people are satisficing is: on what basis are they ‘settling’?  This means going beyond biases and nudges, to really understand the complexities of how people think.

We can explain more about how we can help you use qualitative research and behavioural economics together. Contact Sue to start a conversation.


Tags: Behavioural Economics, Qualitative Research

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