In-the-moment research: why the lizard is a researcher’s best friend

Tim Benner
October 06, 2021

It’s a funny thing, recall. Most of us like to think we have a pretty good memory, with perhaps the odd blind spot like names or directions. But when it comes to recalling memories, the process is in fact one of reconstruction - pulling together components of memories and stitching them back together again. Most of the time, this doesn’t matter. If you’re retelling an amusing anecdote at the pub, for example, the nuances of exactly what happened and why matters less than good comic timing. 

But for brands working to understand consumer motivations, this reality is a problem. Not only do people reconstruct their memories, they also do it based on their self-image, what they’ve been taught, social conventions and cultural norms. All these elements are pulled together by the rational, analytical part of the brain (aka, the monkey brain) to realign actual motivations to better fit one’s personal reality. For example, we might say that we picked a particular drink we had yesterday because it was healthy, and the ingredients were all natural.  While the truth is that we wanted a sugar hit because we were hung over and needed an energy boost. That monkey part of the brain is a social creature and wants to present a consistent, attractive picture, even if only to itself.  

We conduct research to understand consumers. But if we pose the questions days or even weeks later, how can we possibly be sure those answers are accurate? If the monkey is always butting in and adding justification for our behaviour, our true motivations will remain a mystery and researchers are left trying to explain away the gap between people’s stated intentions or reconstructed motivations and their actual behaviours. 

This isn’t really news. The entire customer experience world has been pushing towards in-the-moment feedback for years now. You barely hang up the phone from a call centre before an email asking about your experience has landed in your inbox. Why? Because companies know that a) you’re more likely to share your feedback while it’s still top of mind, and b) because the responses you provide will be more accurate. 

Brands need to move in this direction for consumer intelligence too if they want to understand the true motivators of both purchase and consumption. “I bought this drink because I care about the environment and only want to consume natural products” is a great insight, but not if it actually isn’t entirely true. In fact, not only does it not offer valuable insight, it potentially causes harm by causing you to invest in the wrong areas. You may have only been in the consideration set because the drink was priced at 50% off. What your monkey brain prioritised after the fact was that you are a good person because you bought an organic, sustainably packaged drink, even-though it was the price that allowed the purchase. 

Capturing insights from consumers in-the-moment means the monkey hasn’t gotten all the way out of bed yet. In fact, let’s put it in evolutionary terms. In the moment means that we’re dealing more closely with the lizard brain, that part of the mind which is based on instinct. This is what you need to tap into, rather than its great great grandchild, the monkey brain, who rationalises the behaviour afterwards. 

This is pure gold for consumer research, brand and marketing teams who need accurate intelligence to build out business plans. Plus, if your competitors are relying on recall based, reconstructed insights, you’ve just secured a significant competitive advantage because in the moment research is better at uncovering hidden growth opportunities. From new marketing channels and campaigns to product development or packaging approaches, insights derived from interactions closer to the lizard brain can help you get that monkey off your back and avoid the pain of explaining “well it’s what the consumers said they wanted, but they just don’t seem to by buying it.”

Maximising the value of in-the-moment research requires more, of course, and we’ll get to those issues another day. In the meantime, think about what you chose to have as a snack just yesterday. What was your motivation? Are you sure…? What does your lizard say?


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