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The Perils of Priming and how Co-Creation can Help

‘Yes, Prime Minister’ was recently described as an “essential training manual” for members of the government, but this example above could teach those of us in the insight hunting business a thing or two. Not least, how we need to be wary of unintentionally skewing consumer responses when looking to understand consumer behaviour.

As Malcolm Gladwell outlines in Blink, psychological studies have consistently shown how one person can alter another’s behavior by planting suggestions – intentionally or otherwise: this is known as ‘Priming’. In one experiment, a researcher gave subjects seemingly random word puzzles, with no apparent point or thread. But some of these puzzles were ‘primed’ with a larger number of words associated with old age:  Florida, gray, wrinkle, lonely, bingo.  When respondents walked down the hallway to leave after the exercise, the subjects who had the ‘old’ puzzles walked more slowly.

If such seemingly tiny influences priming have such significant effects on actual behaviour, this obviously has serious implications for research. The ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ example demonstrates a more blatant example of manipulation, but how can ‘honest’ researchers manage to get consumers to share the real motivations for their behaviour, when a carefully designed discussion guide inevitably leads consumers (often unknowingly) in a particular direction.

We believe collaborative techniques such as co-creation go a long way to overcoming these challenges and getting to what’s really going on in consumer’s heads, whether their purpose is to uncover insight or develop thinking.

  • To start, the moderator’s role shifts from that of ‘Director’ to ‘Facilitator’, managing the conversation rather than steering it. Instead of a minutely structured discussion guide, with question after question to ‘prime’ the audience, the conversation flows in the direction consumers are interested in, not along the lines dictated by the client and agency team.
  • The more workshop style structure of sessions also allows for opportunities to look at the challenges from a number of different perspectives – allowing us to triangulate learnings and build up layers of understanding. One can start to see patterns and inconsistencies when you look through different lenses and get to a deeper level of insight.
  • Finally, one of our mantras here at Brand Genetics is ‘Behaviour before explanation’: in short don’t let consumer’s box themselves into a corner by explaining their perspectives first and thereby priming themselves to choose particular concepts or respond in particular ways. Behavioural economics shows we’re much better to get consumers to make their choices or act out scenarios first and then talk you through their reasoning – this gets you to the emotionally driven reality first, and you can then build understanding second.

Ultimately, co-creation lets consumers drive the agenda leading to more honest feedback. It helps ensure that the biggest influences on their responses are other consumers (which is ultimately what happens in the real world) and overcomes the dangers of priming leading us down the route we, as client or agency, either wanted or expected.


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