Is there potential for 'prospection' in qualitative research?

As qualitative researchers, we are always looking for new techniques and ways of thinking to help us get to the heart of the research in question with consumers. So we read, with great interest, an article in The New York Times entitled ‘We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment’ by Martin E. P. Seligman & John Tierney.

The article is based on a paper written by Seligman and colleagues called Homo Prospectus which introduces an emerging field of study called ‘Prospective Psychology’. The field aims to explore our unique ability as human beings to engage in ‘prospection: the mental simulation of future possibilities’.  Essentially, it’s a form of day-dreaming.

Put simply (because I’m no academic!), the article argues that we aren’t simply creatures of habit as we often tend to believe. Rather that we are constantly, and actively, seeking information from our environment and experiences to develop our own set of possible future actions and resulting outcomes – which ultimately help us to decide how to behave. And we do all of this in no time at all – often at a subconscious level!

I think the easiest way that the authors explain their position is in terms of mental health disorders and potential treatment. They posit that those suffering from depression, for example, struggle to recover not necessarily because they are dogged by past experiences, but that they could actually struggle to imagine a different outcome in the future and thus the types of behaviours that would lead to that outcome.

So why is this interesting for us and our clients?

Well, much like psychology, qualitative research typically focuses on past or present experiences to understand consumer behaviour; in many instances asking consumers to recount a previous or current purchase/brand experience. So the focus is always, ‘What did you do, why did you do it and how could the brand do better?’. While this approach works well for some types of research, it can pose limitations when trying to understand how to disrupt consumer behaviour and encourage switching (i.e. to another brand/service provider).

What if we changed how we asked our questions to try and get consumers to think from a future-focused perspective to uncover the more subconscious perceptions, expectations and other influencers that might impact their motivations and barriers towards a particular brand?

For example, when exploring customer journeys, the focus tends to be on understanding recent experience and pain points. But what if we asked consumers to imagine ‘what could happen’ when they interact with a particular brand and ‘what could the steps in the journey look like to create the best experience?’

Or, when understanding how to disrupt consumer behaviour, why not change the outcome for them and get them to imagine how they would have got there? I.e. ‘Imagine that you’ve just purchased X from X brand and are feeling good about your experience. Talk us through what would have to happen to get you to that brand and how your interaction would go.’.

Could this change in approach help us to uncover unmet needs and expectations and help our clients develop strategies that are more aligned with future behaviour? Watch this space…