Fun, fast and easy: Research's war on rationality

Tom Ewing
BrainJuicer, UK


Market research has often crossed paths with psychology. Whole disciplines of research have been shaped by advances in our understanding of the mind. In the early part of the 20th century, for example, researchers saw the revolutionary potential of Freudian ideas of the unconscious for understanding consumer motivations – it was one of the strands which led to the birth of qualitative research.

Now, at the start of a new century, there are new bodies of work which look set to have a similarly seismic impact on research and how it happens. Advances in the behavioural sciences – from behavioural economics through to social psychology – are reshaping research as surely as any technological breakthrough.

This paper looks in particular at applications of the ideas of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and his work on how people make judgements and decisions. Kahneman's central concept is that people make decisions according to two mental systems, one ("System 1") fast and largely intuitive, the other ("System 2") slower and more effortful. Most of the decisions guided by System 1 are good ones, in that they are efficient and stop our daily lives becoming paralysed by cognitive overload. However, they are often susceptible to unconscious biases. The most important thing about System 1 is that good or bad, it guides the overwhelming majority of the decisions people make. This point, and its huge implications for research, is the subject of this paper.