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Rethinking How we do Research: Daring to Look into the Telescope

Let’s admit it: methodology is not a very sexy topic.

Yet we routinely make extraordinarily high-stakes decisions based on research. Extremely high, as we’ve seen recently in a major error in our assessments of the US economy: New York Times piece on data noted, "…Politicians and investors are placing a great deal of weight on a crude and rough estimate that has never been particularly reliable."

We do the same when it comes to behavioral research. All the time. As a psychosocial researcher, I am trained to think about what underpins our methods. Most of us carry unconscious epistemic assumptions – how we know what we know. These assumptions tend to be biased towards a particular interpretation of the scientific method. In other words: what can be most easily and quickly observed. Thus we convince ourselves that we can learn about human beings, behavior, preferences, tastes, perceptions and emotions through instruments that are actually designed to measure observed data.

Problems arise when we consider the fact that human behavior is messy, contradictory, paradoxical, irrational, emotional, passionate and often driven by unconscious forces. Gut feelings, visceral reactions, irrational desires, ambivalence are all mostly unconscious. And yes, hard to track through a poll, survey, or even an interview. (It’s not called “unconscious” for nothing. It’s quite literally out of view, our blind spots.) It also seems to be something we are reluctant to address, let alone incorporate into our research methodologies. It seems too messy, too complicated. But we want the rich data. So we settle.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Research methods are constantly being innovated – and it is time to catch up. Behavior change, now the buzzword in sustainability, is really about asking the “why” and far less about the “how” if it’s to have any traction or depth. I am interested in methods to help us explore the “why” – designing methods that are largely qualitative and with keen interest in affect, emotions and meaning. Getting underneath what we do, why we do it, and what happens when we see what we’ve done. When we talk about values, for example, what informs our values? What emotions (and unmet needs) are expressed out through our worldviews? How might an object as innocuous as a plastic bottle be associated with a particular memory or experience, or the act of taking public transportation be associated with risk? We are talking about meaning. And exploring meanings is about how we are stitched into the world – through our attachments, loves, identities, relationships. Which means, of course, our branding.

One of the questions I am asked most often is about costs and perceived “luxury” to do in-depth qualitative research. And my response is this: qualitative, thoughtful and rich research does not have to be costly, time-intensive or involve lots of group therapy or multiple in-depth interviews. Any of the methods we currently use can be modified quickly and effectively – provided it’s done well and competently.

I once revised an entire stakeholder interview questionnaire on climate change – in two hours. I also advised on how the interviews would be conducted. The clients were delighted, the data was remarkably richer than anticipated, and the analysis fed directly into a new communications strategy. On other occasions I have conducted focus group observations over a few hours, and generated an entire analysis simply by listening differently, and creating a “map” that focuses on conflicts, dilemmas or affect. This then can be used to help design more sensitive engagement practices. The work is practical, potent, and effective. It can be applied to just about any existing method or tool – online or offline.

Sure, the gold standard would be to invest the time, resources and energy to develop and conduct in-depth qualitative research, if you have an interest in exploring the complexity of how people come to terms with the complicated world of sustainability. But I know from experience it doesn’t have to be gold standard to be effective.

When it comes to high stakes like how life is going to survive and thrive on the planet, do we want to continue depending on ‘crude and rough estimates’ on human psychology? The psychologist Dr. Eleanor Rosch says, “Science needs to be performed with the mind of wisdom.” This means having the courage to innovate new tools and methods to take us where we need to go: from the observed world, to the less-visible world of the psyche. It means entrepreneurial research and taking risks. Before you balk at the idea of doing research a bit differently, think about the telescope and how it changed our world. As Otto Scharmer reminds us, at first no one wanted to look through the telescope out of fear. It’s time now to look through some different instruments and discover a different world.


Dr. Renee Lertzman brings deep psychological insight into the best practices for engaging, connecting with and designing effective communications. She specializes in brand strategy, research and engagement for clients who want to take stakeholder, employee and consumer engagement to a… [Read more about Renee Lertzman]


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