Designing Market Research: Applying Cognitive Theory

Understand the Thinking That Motivates Consumers to Purchase

Three women and two men in a business meeting.
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Qualitative research can be adapted to suit many fields, particular psychology in market research. It is a natural fit, as marketers and advertisers want to understand what drives consumers to purchase their products. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by understanding the cognitive processes that lead up to and help conclude a purchase decision.

How People Define Themselves

Identity theory is focused on how people define themselves and where they place themselves in the environment.

Identity theorists are interested in the choices, aspirations, concerns, and needs of individuals. Identity theory has practical applications to the construction of consumer profiles and is the foundation for market segmentation. People tend not to be very good about analyzing their behaviors or revealing the reasons behind their motivation. It means that presenting research questions to participants within an identity framework tends to elicit more nuanced, honest and thoughtful responses.

The Black Box of Consumer Thinking

Consumers move through a number of stages on the way to making a purchase. Consumers are said to move through a marketing funnel, which represents the commitment to making a purchase. It is easy to become focused on the movement of consumers through this funnel without really understanding what drives this movement. Developing consumer profiles is one market research technique designed to spotlight consumer thinking.

Applying cognitive theory to qualitative market research can make it easier for research participants to provide deeper and more relevant answers to researchers questions. Where direct questioning often results in superficial answers, the application of cognitive theory to qualitative research can generate a more natural conversation with consumers.

Improve Your Market Segmentation

Two theories basic to a cognitive approach are perception theory and identity theory, and both are grounded in phenomenology. Phenomenology is the study of the conscious experience that people have with regard to their environments. The focus of phenomenology is the first-person experience. In qualitative market research, phenomenology is the basis for focus groups, consumer journals, and interviews. In research that is grounded in phenomenological philosophy, participants give accounts of their experiences, and in doing so, relay information that only they have.

Perception theory draws from phenomenology and neuroscience. Perception theorists are interested in how the world is perceived and conceptually organized by the human brain. When market researchers use perception theory as the basis for their inquiries, they may ask research participants to reflect and communicate about the natural steps of information processing. These steps are attention, rehearsal, retrieval, and encoding.

How People Process Information

Only about seven bits of information can be stored in our short-term memory at any given time. The human brain has to rehearse information to keep it in short-term memory.

When a bit of information has been sufficiently rehearsed, the bit of information is moved to long-term memory, where it can be retrieved without continuous rehearsal. Bits of information that are not rehearsed continuously to enable them to stay in short-term memory, or not rehearsed sufficiently to move to long-term memory, are forgotten. To make use of bits of information in long-term memory, those bits of information have to be moved back to the working memory so they can be retrieved.

Most of the time, this sort of information processing occurs without our explicit conscious effort. It is only when information is inordinately complex or foreign to our typical experiences that we need to exert effort to memorize bits of information. Because these processes are so automatic, participants in market research may not readily tap into their often unconscious thoughts and emotions.

That said, if research participants are asked questions like, "What did you first notice about the product?" or "With what did you associate the product?" they may be able to delve into their deeper unconscious thinking.