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How to Make (Quantitative) Research Actionable


By Rajan Sambandam

Yes, it is a rather important issue and can be approached in a variety of ways. My purpose with this post is not to provide a comprehensive answer, but look at one specific solution based on what I recently read. The book is Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s excellent summary of a lifetime of research. He is perhaps the most accomplished psychologist around and could (among other things) justifiably be called the intellectual godfather of behavioral economics. It is always worth listening to what he says and in this particular case, it seems to me there is a nugget that applies to making quantitative research more actionable.

Kahneman talks about some intriguing studies where causal interpretations routinely trump statistical facts. That is, participants in experiments consistently “learn” things when they see something they can ascribe some meaning to, as opposed to mere anti-septic facts. For example, even when clearly told that only 27% exhibit a certain helpful behavior, they consistently overestimate (by large amounts) the likely helpful behavior of a new person. However when shown (video of) two specific people who had exhibited anti-social behavior and asked to guess the tendency of the group as a whole, people were remarkably accurate.  Kahneman quotes a particularly memorable summary line from a study:

Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular“.

How does it relate to making quantitative research actionable? Let’s consider some differences between qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative research is exploratory, vivid and not generalizable, while quantitative is often confirmatory, quantifiable and generalizable. Qualitative deals with the specific, while quantitative deals with the general. Mistaking one for the other often leads to embarrassing outcomes.

However, the specific advantages of each approach can be combined to make research more actionable if we carefully heed what Kahneman is suggesting. Conducting a flawless quantitative study is not enough. As Kahneman puts it “People who are taught surprising statistical facts about human behavior may be impressed to the point of telling their friends about what they have heard, but this does not mean that their understanding of the world has really changed“. When looking at the results of a quantitative study, regardless of how impressive the results, the observer (client, marketer, whoever) may not adequately absorb it to change their decision-making behavior. At least, not as often as market researchers would like. So the trick is to conduct a valid (quantitative) study but present the findings in a vivid, memorable manner that exploits the human tendency to “infer the general from the particular“.

How can we do this? One answer is by using all the multi-media tools that are increasingly, and cheaply, accessible to researchers these days. Another is by creatively using qualitative research to create vivid answer nuggets that stay with the audience long after the research has been completed. Given fundamental human behavioral tendencies, simply conducting a good quantitative study will not ensure that it is acted upon. To get the intended audience to learn the results well enough to change their behavior, the results have to be presented in a memorable manner.

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