Are You Really Listening?

21 May , 2017  

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”.(1)


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.



(2) and-tacit- knowledge/

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