Unearth the power of declared data
Insights That Work
Brand & Retailer tickets for all IIeX events now start at just $99! Get or give one today!

Why Recall Must Die: Capturing the Point of Emotion

The Point of Emotion is closer than ever. It’s for this reason that mobile technology is truly a revolutionary force in market research. There are millions of people carrying around technology that gives us a window into their lives.


Editor’s Note: The intersection of technology, psychology, and biology is a simply fascinating topic, but it’s rapidly becoming more than just the purview of futurists and academics. Some of the greatest commercial work being done today is driven by developing technological models that allow us to implement the great work being done in academia and other fields of science related to understanding the drivers of human behavior.

This week I am at The Market Research Technology Event in Las Vegas and the agenda is chock full of sessions focused on this very idea. We are in the Age of Convergence: not just of data and technology, but also of virtually all of the sciences. Our understanding of the world around us and how we as humans relate to is growing exponentially and it is that constant innovation across multiple disciplines that is utterly transforming our industry. Kelley Styring, Tony Cosentino and I will be making regular posts on what we’re learning along these lines here at TMRTE. I also encourage you to check the #TMRTE Twitter feed or the TMRTE blog.

Andrew Jeavons of Survey Analytics has been on the forefront  of these changes for many years and this post by him (originally on the Research Access blog) is an excellent summation of how technology and neuropsychology are combining to revolutionize the process as well as the promise of market research. I think you’ll enjoy it very much indeed.

By Andrew Jeavons

Market research relies heavily on human memory. Attempting to measure recall about what respondents thought or felt about a product or service is a standard approach for market researchers.

Surveys often consist of long lists of memory tests. So many surveys contain phrases like, “Thinking about the last time you used XXX”?  And of course, focus groups always rely on the subjective recall of emotional states.

The assumption underpinning the standard market research operating procedure of directed recall is that we can reach into our experiences and retrieve complex information.

But is that true? Can respondents accurately retrieve memories and emotional states in response to a survey questionnaire?

Most market researchers give little to no thought to their reliance on recall. They fail to challenge themselves to better understand respondents, and in so doing they fail their clients and themselves.

Market research lives in its respondents’ past. The problem is that the current market research modus operandi of asking respondents to recall memories and emotions may be faulty at its core.

Memory is increasingly being understood by academicians as fluid rather than a concrete object that can be picked up and read at will.

The dominant theory of memory for many years has been so-called “working memory”, with researchers such as Alan Baddeley, Graham Hitch and Nelson Cowan producing a robust literature. These researchers concentrated on the cognitive aspects of memory, acoustic and visual buffering systems, episodic memory formation processes, and, finally, longer term memory processes.

In parallel, neuropsychologists and neurophysiologists searched for the “holy grail” of memory research, identifying what was known as the engram – the physical imprint that a memory must somehow make on the brain. More recent work seems to be getting researchers closer to understanding the physiological nature of memory.

Almost all of this is resolutely ignored by market researchers.

Researchers tend to see memory as a concrete object, something that can be brought back and returned to memory. It can be lost like an object too. When we simply can’t recall things, we say we have lost the memory, as if we possessed a thing such as a key.

In Wired Magazine’s March 2012 issue, Jonah Lehrer provides an interesting summary of recent research on memory, focusing on the work of Karim Nader at McGill University in Canada.

Research on alleviating the terrible symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has begun to challenge the idea that memory is like a set of photographs we can access, look at, and put away again in the same condition.

PTSD can be regarded as a super-strong memory. A memory has been imprinted so powerfully that it cannot seem to fade away, as many memories do over time. PTSD is a breakdown in forgetting.

Nader’s research overturns the idea that memory is static, that it is a concrete object that can be read repeatedly in the same way. He found that the process of recall can cause the memory to be rewritten, so that we constantly modify memories as we recall them. Hence there is hope for victims of PTSD.

There is no engram.

Memory is not static; it can be amended by the conditions under which we recall it. Recall is rewriting memory.

The ability for us to forget is vital for us to function in our lives. As the famous Russian psychologist Alexander Luria documented in his book “The Mind of a Mnemonist,” remembering everything can be crippling for someone. The man in Luria’s book, called “S”, was not able to forget. He lived a confusing, cluttered life.  Everything he did or heard brought back a flood of memories and feelings from the past.

Without forgetting we can’t have new experiences. We have to forget: we have to forget childhood, we have to forget most of what we do to remain able to function in the future.

The necessity of forgetting is itself forgotten by market research. There is a pervasive idea that respondents actually can remember all these subtle impressions and emotions and then record them on a 11 point scale days or weeks after an event.

The truth is, mostly, they can’t. We have to forget most of what we experience. Trips to the mall or the supermarket are low on the list of things we have to remember because, mostly, they don’t matter. What grades your child got last week are a much higher priority.

The obvious problem is that market research needs those impressions that are forgotten. While we may not be able articulate with any accuracy what we have felt, the emotional residue will influence behavior in the future.

The core dogma of recall has to be rejected.  The problem becomes: what will replace it ?

We can’t have interviewers follow all of our panelists or respondents around and constantly monitor what they do in the hope of catching those fleeting moments of emotion about products or services that they experience. Those memories of emotions are soon lost, washed away in the stream of consciousness that allows us to function from day to day.

The Point of Emotion

It’s not often that new technology is really a revolution. Too often, vendors hype technology way beyond its boundaries.

However, smartphones just may deserve the hype. The smartphones that 65% of the US population now carry around with them have astounding processing power and connectivity. This power is being harnessed to give us a view of the consumer which is radically different from anything we have seen before.

Consumers are also using smartphones in various settings that were heretofore unheard of: on the toilet, while waiting in line for coffee, in transit, and just about anywhere there is idle time for the consumer. Smartphones and their addictive connectivity have users carrying these devices every waking moment in their lives.

Our need to be connected drives this smartphone ubiquity. This also presents an opportunity for research and feedback to live “in the moment” – in real time, not in recall time.

We call this the Point of Emotion (POE).

The Point of Emotion is the point in time when a consumer is using a product – drinking coffee, using toothpaste to brush their teeth. Technology allows us to capture emotions as they happen.

There will be many technologies that will allow us to leverage the Point of Emotion, the current technology we see as the most significant is QR codes.

Smartphones with QR code embedded feedback systems allow us to capture four critical pieces of paradata:

  • Timestamp – When the emotion was experienced.
  • Location – Almost all smartphones have GPS or wifi-enabled location triangulation.
  • Context – Embedded QR codes give granular context about products.
  • Unique Device ID – Unique identifers enable linking of data from different temporal phases.

Researchers, rejoice! We no longer have to rely on recall to capture the customer’s viewpoint.

The Point of Emotion is closer than ever. It’s for this reason that mobile technology is truly a revolutionary force in market research. There are millions of people carrying around technology that gives us a window into their lives. All we have to do is shed our own biases and make of use of what’s right in front of our eyes.

Please share...

8 responses to “Why Recall Must Die: Capturing the Point of Emotion

  1. Because I never take a contrarian view, I’ll do this just for the heck of it, Andrew. Your point regarding recall is well-said; simply reflecting on our own lives should tell us that recall of experience at key decision points for everyday objects is cloudy at best. However, there is the contrasting belief in the Point of Emotion or the Moment of Truth that may also be overstated. Take any set of letters you like – I still like the 4Ps, but they all say similar things. A primary purpose of marketing is to either create a need or to fill a need with a product (or, for those who’ve lived in Cincinnati, you could be like Brute Force Cybernetics, creating a need then filling it). The ultimate goal is to have a stimulus-response bond built that does not require thought or emotion. I go down the aisle and I buy Charmin Ultra Soft, not because it is squeezably soft but because it’s what I always buy. Same for Colgate Mint Gel toothpaste and Wishbone Italian dressing. Maybe Mr. Whipple convinced me, long ago, to try Charmin or maybe I had a high value coupon or a great deal in-store. The experience satisfied my need for soft, absorbent toilet paper. An S-R bond is built that lets me not think about this in the future (in Behavioral Economics terms, a heuristic is created). The point is, I’m no longer emotional over that decision, I may never have been emotional about that decision, and it’s not even clear I’m making a choice any more – I just buy it.

    This doesn’t mean that we, as marketers, can’t change someone’s behavior. The theory behind shopper marketing is that if we can distract the shopper, breaking that S-R bond, we might be able to create a new relationship. This might mean re-setting the shelf to make something more prominent or encourage a product comparison or force a reason to try something else to come to consciousness. Bill Wells (DDB Needham head of research) used to espouse the belief that a lot of advertising was designed to reinforce S-R bonds. So there is a tug-of-war for the shopper, building bonds and trying to tear them down. None of this requires emotion and, from a research perspective, does not require the measurement of emotion. What is critical is the outcome – does Approach A generate more sales than Approach B.

    Marketing requires an understanding of the shopper and/or the consumer, but it may not be understanding their emotions, but rather, what will impact this shopping behavior. It may be an emotional appeal, it may be price, it may simply be setting up a comparison that shoppers were previously unlikely to make. In the end, the purpose of marketing is to sell more stuff and the purpose of marketing research is to help marketers sell more stuff.

  2. It is very true that memory is pliable and that every point of contact for a brand might change our memory. Since I have started in research all researchers have been aware of this and called it priming. We all try to minimize this in our questionnaires, but we are aware that by asking questions we are changing memory.
    Yes, observation studies does have an advantage, but they tell you nothing about the why.
    To argue that smart phones give an opportunity to ‘observe’, or track better is OK; but to call these observations ‘Point of Emotion’ is really overstating what happens at points of contact.

    For most brands the emotion we experience when using the brand is small. Seldom does a consumer break out with great feelings of rapture when they see their tube of Colgate toothpaste in the bathroom.
    What Steve say about heuristics is probably more descriptive of how we choose, and the neurological model of decision making seems to state that when brands are compared then the one that raises the biggest positive emotion has a higher likelihood to be chosen – but the emotion itself is still probably very small.
    I don’t think we should be looking for overwhelming emotional states in research.

    A common fallacy in research arguments is that because respondents cannot accurately describe what happened when they bought brand A it is useless to do research. Respondents are likely to give you rationalizations about why they bought brand A (Mostly because us researchers are not happy when they truthfully say: ‘Because I usually buy brand A”. In fact our question will tend to have the words ‘(probe)’ in our questionnaire and we praise fieldworkers that probe the most – i.e. get us the most rationalizations.

    We should not reject these as being bad data because it is not an accurate reflection of the past. We should view this as being a reflection of the ‘as if’ circuitry of the brain. With this I mean they reflect what the respondent thinks might happen if he had to think about the brands at that point in time. As such it is a reasonable self projection of what is likely to happen if something disturbs the normal heuristic (habit) that the respondent uses – at that point in time.

  3. Interesting post Andrew. I’d like to disagree, partly to be contrary! (And I suspect I’m closer to Erik’s thinking.)

    Doesn’t the value of ‘recall’-type questioning vary depending on the objective? If I want to find our how long you really waited in line for your coffee, then measurement at the point of experience is likely to be far more factually reliable than recall of the experience at some point later.

    But if I want to understand what the impact of that experience was on your disposition toward the coffee-chain, then asking me about my recollection of the experience may be more useful. See the piece here for a more detailed discussion of the difference between experience and memory (….

    I don’t disagree that, as an industry, we rely far too much on recall, but I fear slightly for the baby as we rush to throw out the bathwater.

    Separately, I’d also take issue with your conflation of experience and emotion – mobile measurement may allow us to get closer to the point of experience, but that doesn’t necessarily we understand the emotion any better.

  4. The topic of replacing recall with XYZ (XYZ attached somehow to emotion) is very relevant to today’s market researcher. The introductory statement delivers this concern quite well:

    “Most market researchers give little to no thought to their reliance on recall. They fail to challenge themselves to better understand respondents, and in so doing they fail their clients and themselves.”

    Today’s answer is ’emotion,’ in its many disguises. Indeed, one might call emotion today’s ‘Hero of a thousand faces,’ in the Joseph Campbell tradition.

    There are problems, however. The biggest problem is OPERATIONALIZING emotion — what do you measure, how do you measure, and then what do you look for? We are as guilty as the market researchers who rely upon recall. We invoke emotion, point to the neuropsychology literature, point to one or another methods for measuring ‘something’ related to those neuropsychological variables we believe to operate. Then. oh so merrily we skip along, feeling that we have solved the problem.

    In truth .. at minimum, we are perhaps a bit self delusional. We might well be arrogant. The truth is that we have no solid corpus of science to show the operationally meaningful linkages between emotions and behaviors. We have the obvious. But ..can we as consumer researchers actually ‘create’ an emotion, and predict behavior? Some of the behavioral economists do..when it comes to variables that have a numerical aspect, where homo economicus reigns supreme. But what about the emotions involved in brushing our teeth. Again…can we create emotions, and predict behavior.. other than the obvious?

    Until we can .. I’m all for recall. I ‘get recall.’ I feel comfortable, in control, with some modicum of understanding. At least I can rememeber what I’m measuring..and can operationally define recall. If I can’t, a century and a half of solid literature in experimental psychology, from Ebbinghaus on, is ready to show me what I must do, physically, to measure recall.

Join the conversation