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Research live - "Psychtech ‘outsiders’ challenge research insiders to change"

October 22, 2014

This article was first published on – Research live

There are much better tools and theories to understand people today than there were in the years when focus groups, shopper panels and use and attitude studies were first devised. Big data allows us to capture observational truths as opposed to claims. And psychology has moved on from psychoanalysis and behaviourism, to decision theory and behavioural economics. 


This shouldn’t be news to anyone in the research industry.  But it’s also true that despite what is discussed in the research journals and blogs, industry insiders definitively lag outsiders in the tech industry when it comes to putting new advances to work.  Why is this?

Some, like Dr Benny Cheung, a director at Decision Technology, suggest many don’t understand the limitations of the old approaches and so don’t see the advantages of these emerging techniques.

“As psychologists we know that two key pillars of existing approaches to market research – asking consumers to extrapolate decision making outside of its natural context/environment, and asking them to tell us why they acted in a certain way – are both flawed. Humans simply are very poor at doing these things.”

People can’t explain their behaviour, but there are tests that can accurately measure an individual’s personality in terms of the ‘big five’ traits, which in turn can predict their future behaviour.

Predicting behaviour

The Big Five is decades old, but is not widely used in the conventional research industry.  By combining this public domain model with proprietary testing methods and big data we’ve been able to create value.

In the credit industry, we can predict who will, and will not, pay back a loan accurately enough for banks to use in making lending decisions.  For marketers it allows us to segment target audiences by demographics, interests, intentions and personality.

Those segments can be targeted via our global network reaching more than 300 million consumers. Using modelling techniques, our data scientists have transformed this data into more than 110 million deep profiles. In the UK alone we have 45 million profiles available through 15 major advertising technology platforms.

Initial results from a recent study with Cambridge University and a VisualDNA client showed that there were huge differences in the ROI obtained when targeting different personality types – some were four times more responsive than others. Further to this, tailoring the advertising so that it matched the personality type it was targeted at, led to a greater return on investment across all segments.

Several other London-based companies are also in this ‘psychtech’ space and are challenging the accepted leaders in market research. These include Decode Marketing, which uses ideas from behavioural economics combined with implicit testing, to get insight into consumers’ unconscious preferences for brands.

Recent start-up CrowdEmotion uses emotional machine learning in media to detect emotion in real time. It is seeing up to twice the accuracy in predicting audience appreciation over other metrics like demographics and self-report.

Decision Technology is a specialised consultancy applying both emerging and established techniques in the fields of experimental psychology and behavioural economics to provide businesses with much richer analytics to support decisions.

Research industry playing it safe

So why is ‘psychtech’ the preserve of geeks and entrepreneurs?  One theory is that the research industry has turned inward and become too ‘safe’, trusting in what seems to work rather than challenging it.

Decode’s Phil Barden says: “The irony is that the biggest barrier to change is the brain itself. Humans have inbuilt cognitive biases that protect the status quo and reject new ideas that contradict existing paradigms or beliefs. One way to overcome this is ‘social proof’. When we see others doing something it reduces the perceived risk of us doing the same.”

CrowdEmotion’s CEO, Matthew Celuszak, also feels a change of mindset is required: “For many – especially in Britain – emotion is still a dirty word. We are conditioned to control our emotions as a sign of maturity and respect. So talking about emotions – let alone studying them as the basis of decisions – makes people feel uncomfortable.”

Whatever the reasons why adoption has been slow, the early results indicate that it won’t be for long.

Outsiders could be agents of widespread change. Our role is to educate, demonstrate and validate all the time, creating the social proof that gives brands and agencies the confidence to invest in these new psychtech models. While established players may be slow to invest in prototypes and NPD, we would be surprised if more aren’t joining us in using these methods soon.

Jacob Wright is head of strategy at VisualDNA.