Theory of Mind and the Top Five Things You Can do to Avoid Moderator-Likeability Bias

The ability to have an intuitive understanding of what someone is thinking or feeling isn’t something we are born with, but develop in early childhood. Understanding this process can help market researchers identify and correct certain types of bias in research.

The field of market research leans heavily on psychology and cognitive science which is not surprising because so much of market research is about understanding the choices people make and why they make them. Psychology, the study of the human mind and its processes, is part of the field of cognitive science, an interdisciplinary scientific study that includes linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology.  One branch within cognitive science that has proven to be particularly useful for market researchers is Theory of Mind (ToM).

In the back-and-forth discussion of qualitative research, ToM can provide insight into potential biases that can manifest in the data gathering process and suggest ways of avoiding it.

So, what is the theory behind Theory of Mind? ToM was first put forth in 1978 by US psychologists and primatologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff. The central point of ToM is we are not born with the understanding that others have beliefs and desires that are unique to our own. However, in early childhood, the mind undergoes a social reasoning process which helps a person develop an intuitive understanding of a) the mental states of others, b) recognize that those mental states may differ from their own, and c) use that understanding to predict and interpret another’s behavior.

Cultural attitudes can also play a big role how sensitive respondents are to these cues given by moderators and can vary by geographic regions. The figure below shows various personality clusters across the United States.  Published online in 2013 by the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study by Peter Rentfrow[1] shows personality clusters by geographic regions in the United States.

[1] Rentfrow, et. al. (2013) Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social and Health Correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, No. 6, 996 –1012

My general experience as a market researcher in the healthcare industry for over 20 years is consistent with these findings.  Patients, nurses, and even physicians from Middle America tend to be comparatively more agreeable, and more muted in any negative feedback than their counterparts from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

So, as a market researcher, what can we do about it? Here are a few ideas that moderators can do to mitigate this type of bias:

  1. Carefully interact with the respondent. In setting a constructive atmosphere for open dialogue, moderators need to put the respondent at ease while maintaining a professional distance.
    • If the respondent is overly comfortable with the moderator, they may become more sensitive to cues that they interpret as suggestive of how the moderator wants them to answer.
    • Avoid changes in facial expression or changes in tone when asking questions. The moderator doesn’t want to come off as robotic. This will hamper the flow of the conversation. The moderator’s face, voice, body language should be reflective of a desire to understand the respondent’s answer, rather than getting a specific response.
  1. Carefully consider your line of questions. How you phrase the question matters a lot.
    • avoid phrasing that would elicit strong emotional response (unless that is specifically your intent)
    • avoid ending questions, with words that suggest a “correct” response
      • “10% efficacy above placebo is acceptable, right?”
    • Carefully consider in what order questions are asked so that it does not imply condescension or questions the logic of earlier responses. If a respondent feels that they are being challenged or being made to look foolish, the attitude can become argumentative and prone to dissent bias.
  2. Restate and reinforce the neutral position of the moderator. The moderator has no financial, emotional, or intellectual stake in the product’s success or failure.
  3. Restate and reinforce the primary objective of the interview is to fully understand the respondent’s answers.
  4. If there are general trends by geography, carefully define rating scales, cautiously interpret verbal assessments and make sure respondent pools are composed of various geographies.

Market research is a confluence of many scientific fields, but the actual practice of market research also requires art. As a market researcher, what we ask, how we ask, and when we ask questions must be carefully balanced. One size does not fit all. This is the art.  It’s challenging but when correctly done, it can yield greater breadth and depth of insights. This is what Cadence strives for and has successfully done for over 13 years.

Please contact me if you have questions or comments on this post or would like to know more about how Cadence Communications & Research can help you.

Sugata holds a BA in Economics from The University of Chicago, MS in Economics from Utah State University, and an MBA from Yale University.  He co-authored Management Consulting, A Complete Guide to the Industry (Wiley 1999/2001). In 2008, Sugata co-founded Cadence Communications & Research, a medical communications and market research firm focused on the healthcare industry. Cadence has been named to the Inc. 500/5000 list of fastest growing private companies in America on three occasions.  Sugata has lectured on the topics of market research and entrepreneurship at various academic institutions.

[1] Rentfrow, et. al. (2013) Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social and Health Correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, No. 6, 996 –1012

[1] Rentfrow, et. al. (2013) Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social and Health Correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, No. 6, 996 –1012

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Author Sugata Biswas

Sugata holds a BA in Economics from The University of Chicago, MS in Economics from Utah State University, and an MBA from Yale University. He co-authored Management Consulting, A Complete Guide to the Industry (Wiley 1999/2001). In 2008, Sugata co-founded Cadence Communications & Research, a medical communications and market research firm focused on the healthcare industry. Cadence has been named to the Inc. 500/5000 list of fastest growing private companies in America on three occasions. Sugata has lectured on the topics of market research and entrepreneurship at various academic institutions.

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