Actions speak louder than words

Market research is commonly used to find out why people do what they do but its rarely as straightforward as just asking for the reasons behind their actions. Below are some of the reasons why:

  • Low involvement - for low involvement decisions, like buying tins of sweetcorn, people often can't really remember why they did what they did. A lot of our actions are carried out almost sub-consciously, there is no deliberating over what course of action we take. This is what behavioural economists call System 1 thinking.
  • Inability to recall details of events from the past - people find it difficult to remember decisions they made in the past, even those made a few days ago let alone a few months ago.
  • Post rationalisation - we often end up post rationalising our behaviour, basically coming up with a story to explain our actions. For example, we might have a favourite coffee brand that we always buy. When asked why you buy that brand you might give quite sensible sounding reasons such as you like the taste and that it is good value for money. However, there may be less logical reasons you are consciously or subconsciously unwilling to reveal such as being fond of the colour of the label. We don’t want to appear shallow to other people or to ourselves. You might not want to tell people that you buy coffee because of the colour of the label as this seems trivial. This effect on responses is called Social Desirability Bias. Essentially we claim we do less of the things that society generally considers bad, like drinking and taking drugs, and more of the things that are seen as good like giving to charity and reading books.

Therefore, the difference in people's beliefs and their behaviours can be quite different. Our questionnaires need to be effective tools in getting at the truth of people's behaviours. We need to frame our questions in a way that can help us get to this truth:

  • Ask about behaviours - understanding what people do can help us get to the why. Ask how often respondents buy tinned sweetcorn, where they buy it from, what occasions they buy it for, what brands they buy etc. Build up a picture of what your target audience actually does.
  • Ask about specific occasions - ask respondents about actual decisions they have made rather than asking general opinions. Questions asking about specific rather than general experiences are often easier for respondents to process and result in more accurate responses as people are reporting back on what they did rather than on what they think.
  • Ask about decisions made recently - it is no good asking people why they bought that tin of sweetcorn 2 months ago, we need to ask about decisions made within a time period where respondents can be reasonably expected to remember the detail. Surveys via mobile phones now give us the potential to ask questions in “the moment”. For example, we can recruit respondents and install an app on their phone to alert them to answer a few questions whenever they are in a supermarket. Old fashioned face-to-face store exit interviews outside retailers are another potential way to question respondents soon after a purchase decision is made.
  • Bring together different sources of information to gain a fuller picture - qualitative research is often the best way of understanding complex motivations, Big Data, such as sales data can help us understand more about behaviours and social media monitoring may shed light on areas we haven't even thought of. Bring together as many perspectives as time and budgets allow to get a multi-dimensional view.


Actions do speak louder than words so make sure you do as much as you can to understand how people actually behave. And don’t take what they say they think at face value.

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