How To Identify And Reduce Cognitive Bias In Market Research

October 14, 2019 Author: Mario X. Carrasco

Brand strategists are tasked with knowing when to include market research in the scope of agency work for clients and with pushing back on the inevitable biases that arise in the agency when collecting and analyzing that data. Cognitive biases, the collection of faulty ways of thinking hardwired into the human brain, permeate almost every aspect of our lives. From anchoring to zero-risk, humans live and work with various types of cognitive biases that can impair judgment and stall progress, both personally and professionally.

Within an agency setting, we see this play out with right and left brain thinkers. Creatives, for example, tend to lean into their emotions and advocate for marketing decisions based on gut vs. data. Marketers, on the other hand, monitor metrics and value logic, considering past performance a big indicator of future results.

This isn’t to say that going with your gut is wrong or that solely relying on the numbers is right. It does highlight, however, the importance of identifying the cognitive biases on your team that have the potential to sabotage your marketing campaigns.

As the arbitrator of data truth in your agency, you must be aware of these biases and put processes in place to prevent them from infiltrating your market research projects, hindering your team’s ability to help the client.

Below are three common biases that show up when conducting market research and quick tips on how to eliminate them from your next project:

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias leads us to look for evidence confirming what we already think or suspect, to view facts and ideas we encounter as further confirmation, and to discount or ignore any piece of evidence that seems to support an alternate view. So, in other words, those who contend with confirmation bias only listen to the information that proves they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

The best way to combat confirmation bias in an agency environment is to adopt a policy of trying to prove assumptions wrong rather than prove them right. Try to poke holes in your theory. Craft a questionnaire or run a focus group. Our brains are wired to confirm notions we hold dear, so rewiring your thinking to entertain the idea that your assumptions could be wrong (because the likelihood is they are) and testing it helps you get to the truth and is quite humbling, an added perk.

Sunk-Cost Thinking

Another detrimental bias we all succumb to is sunk-cost thinking. Sunk-cost thinking tells us to stick with a bad investment because of the money we have already lost on it; to finish an unappetizing restaurant meal because, after all, we’re paying for it; to charge full steam ahead with a marketing investment because we already spent so much money on it. In all cases, this way of thinking is a set up for a letdown. It is never too late to steer a ship in the right direction.

If you’re already getting backlash from consumers and are not seeing the desired results, drop anchor, chart a new course, and go in a different direction. But you can’t go a different way using the same coordinates. Conducting additional market research may be required. Don’t see this as another sunk cost, but a buried treasure full of insights to inform a more relevant and impactful marketing strategy.

Cultural Bias

Finally, there’s cultural bias. At first glance, it’s tempting to limit this to bias based on race or gender. But an often overlooked bias that is also culturally motivated is one in which we assume that everyone sees the world the same way we do. By projecting our opinions on a situation, we skew the outcome in our favor. In market research, this unconscious bias can wreak havoc on survey results and render your data useless. For example, say you’re surveying 100 consumers about their beverage choices. Your favorite beverage is coffee, so you write a question adding positive descriptors about coffee, but none for the other beverage choices.  The lack of preamble in front of the other beverages listed may prompt respondents to think less favorably about those beverages than coffee.

Reduce cultural bias in your survey questions by removing all descriptors and just stating the facts. Be intentional about ignoring your filters and keep the end game in mind. Clean research in, clean research out.

Learn How To Recognize Cognitive Bias In Market Research

Removing all cognitive bias from market research is nearly impossible. Humans interact with too many variables along the research journey to alleviate all bias. Learning how to spot it when you see it, however, and weeding it out is a big step in reducing the impact of cognitive bias on your data insights and improving the value your research adds to your next client project.

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