In The Wild: Tom Ewing

tom ewingNext up in our series of practitioners embracing the world of JDM research is Tom Ewing, Chief Culture Officer at market research agency BrainJuicer, where he works in the Labs team, helping translate the findings of decision science and psychology into methods that create business advantage for clients. His background is as an Internet analyst, social media researcher and journalist. His 2012 paper for BrainJuicer, “Research In A World Without Questions”, looked at the possibilities of observational and behavioural research in a commercial context, and it recently won the ESOMAR Excellence Award for the best market research paper of the year.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? BrainJuicer is a commercial market research and behaviour change company whose mission is to take advances in human understanding and to turn them into commercial advantage. And “human understanding” means behavioural economics, psychology, and decision science.

We want to create behavioural change for our clients. For commercial clients, this means applying the behavioural sciences to a brand owner’s problems and creating opportunities for them and their retail customers. For public service clients, this often means changing behaviour for healthier outcomes. For shoppers, customers, users of services, this means making decision-making faster and easier, and often making it more enjoyable too.

So our Behaviour Change Consultancy will take a client’s brief, understand the behaviour they wish to change and create behavioural activations that we test experimentally to demonstrate their effect.

Our research approaches support our goal to change behaviour for our clients, and are designed to “reflect and predict what people will actually do”, rather than what they think they do and say they will do – the standbys of traditional research. For instance, we put people under time pressure to recreate fast, System 1 decision-making in packaging and promotions research; we harness people’s social sense to understand the likely success of new product launches; we establish how people feel about advertising to predict its efficiency. And much as we like to test iteratively in our behavioural work, we like to re-test our recommendations to clients to demonstrate the value that we can bring.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? On a personal level it’s a natural fit with the curiosity that inspires most market researchers. First of all, you’re curious about what other people do, then you’re curious about why they do it. And then you realise that the stated reasons aren’t actually getting you very far and you want to dig further into how things really work.

As a company BrainJuicer has had an interest in consumer psychology long before I joined – we’ve been doing emotional ad testing since 2007, and tapping crowds for concept testing since 2004. Putting behavioural economics at the heart of our offer has been exhilarating for us as a company and fits with our conviction that market research has been getting consumers wrong for years – putting too much trust in claims and norms and not being curious enough about what people actually do.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? There’s often a gap between the interesting and the useful! Behavioural economics is made up of such a horde of studies, biases, heuristics, and findings that it feels initially like a game of Pokemon: you gotta catch ‘em all, and it seems almost impossible. In order to make it useful you have to make it accessible and tangible to non-specialists – which means you have to streamline it. We use a “Behavioural Model” which uses broad categories of environmental, personal and social influences on decisions that make sense to clients.

The idea is always to get from theory to action as quickly and easily as possible. So the work that leaps out at us tends to be the field experiments that help us to illuminate and bring the thinking to life – real-world test sites, ideally measuring real money changing hands at some point. That’s the arena we’re looking to play in, and frankly those are the findings which get us and clients most excited.

We are fans as well as practitioners. I still love a beautifully constructed experiment or unexpected finding. But it doesn’t really match the satisfaction of being able to change behaviour for our clients; to show how we might reduce hospital infections resulting from poor hand hygiene or to demonstrate how we might reduce binge-drinking.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? Yes. The long term challenge is pretty similar to the one that faces economists trying to turn around textbook economics thinking. You end up with lots of acclaim and a few prizes but people still make the same mistakes based on the same bad theories. Changing behaviour is hard, and it doesn’t stop being hard just because you know about behaviour change. Industrialised market research has twenty years of norms which exert a powerful and reassuring pull on decision makers, even though they’re based on completely faulty models of how decisions work. We can’t talk about fast and easy decisions without facing up to the fact that choosing the existing option is the very definition of one!

The short term issue, I think, is that there’s an awful lot of excitement at the moment around technology – the power we now have to collect behavioural data. New technology is sexy, easy to adopt and an easy incremental step to take; changing your whole worldview is difficult, breaking habits is hard and systems are in place that make change difficult. So it’s understandable that technology often seems of greater interest to the industry than decision-making science. Who needs psychology when you have big data? Well we do, and more than ever. You absolutely need a thorough grounding in psychology to explain behaviour and tell you how to change it.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? For BrainJuicer, it’s been mutually beneficial. Our Behavioural Model and the thinking that underpins our products has been developed in conjunction with academics. But you can’t change behaviour through pure argument and persuasion. If we are to change the behaviour of marketers, advertisers and other people in the research industry, we need to make the case for behavioural economics as engaging and as seductive as possible. I am firmly on the side of the popularisers over the purists.

Our behaviour change projects often involve extensive literature reviews by academics. We read a lot ourselves and have a database of studies with proven real-world effects. If it wasn’t for the academic research there would be no practitioners – we stand on their shoulders and we have to do right by them. And as practitioners it’s our job to apply the theory and make it matter.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? I think at the moment a background in decision science would be an incredible asset for a commercial research company – particularly if you’ve got experience in setting up experiments and how to properly control them. Market research has always been a melting pot of a profession – it’s drawn in psychologists, anthropologists, statisticians, technologists, arts graduates – and while it’s slightly more professionalised these days there’s still a thirst for relevant experience among the smarter companies. But we also need creatives, illustrators, designers, statisticians, writers and speakers to apply the theory, check it works and make it famous. So jump in, it’s an exciting time!

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