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Totality of reward: understanding human behaviour

Esme Holt, research director at Healthcare Research Worldwide, explores how research techniques can help us understand behaviours

Totality of RewardThe ultimate goal for any company is to be able to understand why people do what they do. Understanding how to predict and then change human behaviour, whether in the consumer or healthcare arena, truly is the Holy Grail of any products' success.

Traditional research techniques focus primarily on measures of liking or appeal, but we all know of examples where one product or concept performed 'better' in research, however it flopped when it was launched or wasn't as impactful as expected. Liking or appeal are clearly not the only factors to influence choice. So why do brands fail despite being based on informed research-led decisions?

Within market research we have approaches that can get us so far in uncovering thoughts and feelings, but as we know this isn't the full story. Human behaviour is complex, unpredictable, rational and irrational, and highly automated when it comes to a lot of our decision making processes. This applies to anyone, whether she's a mum choosing food in a supermarket, or a physician making a choice about how to treat a patient.

Beyond the basics

So, should we abandon research altogether? After all, what's the point, right? Well, actually it's about getting beyond the basics, beyond 'overall appeal' and looking at the other contributing factors that influence decision making to better access reality.

This isn't a new concept. Aristotle in c.300BC thought of general equilibrium/happiness (what we are all aiming for overall) as comprising two aspects: hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (a life well lived). Translated into modern terminology we'd call this reward.

Therefore, in any decision making scenario it's not just about appeal, it's about the 'what's in it for me' – what any individual gets from making a certain choice. It's about the totality of the reward.

The totality of reward is based on the principle that the appeal of a particular option is coupled with the emotional satisfaction it brings and this perspective is supported by a plethora of psychological experiments which look at brain site activity to achieve 'reward'. Added to this are evolutionary behaviour studies, which show we do things that reward us more, from an earlier age and for longer to maintain the effects. For example this could be achieving 'wellness' for a patient or the higher level motivations of worth or job satisfaction for a physician.

So, what does this mean for brand managers and research? Currently research may only be accessing part of the complex set of drivers of behaviour – and there is more that can be done to access the more emotional elements which contribute to the totality of reward. 

We must explore and understand what is perceived, conceptualised and affected by interaction with a company, product or brand. This means we need to understand what characteristics or benefits are perceived, what meaning is intrinsically attached or conceptualised and in turn what feelings or emotional satisfaction are affected to create the reward – and ultimately the likely behaviour which might result.

We need to get deeper than our current focus, to actively target and explore less immediate responses and to understand what we do and do not have control over, and how this affects our decision making processes.

There are a few principles that can help us to get a step further in our quest for this deeper level of understanding:

1. People often don't know why they do what they do…

  • Comparative techniques can be invaluable to access reality and create the same choice environment experiences in the real world
  • Assessing behaviour at different points in time can also allow us to explore inconsistencies in behaviour, and thereby provide stimulus to understand the additional influencing factors
  • Using quick-fire time-dependent exercises can work well to bypass some of the more rational cognitive processes.

2. We post rationalise, so be eagle eyed for inconsistencies…

  • As we know from studies on cognitive dissonance, we often post rationalise to keep our behaviour in line with our values  
  • Initial contextualisation and language analysis are key to picking up on the truer notions driving behaviour
  • Allowing time to moderate is also key – quite often it's possible to pick up on inconsistencies and respondents' rhetorical questions are often most illuminating. 

3. We communicate in different ways, so think holistically…

  • Use stimulus and a focus on body language/facial expression in response to scenarios to uncover and then probe out more emotional underlying factors 
  • Encourage like respondents to discuss issues, because it's as much about the questions they do ask (and the ones we don't ask) as the answers they give
  • Use a range of styles to gain information. People communicate and react differently depending on whether they are visual, kinaesthetic or auditory.
Ultimately, the key to this is to use a range of tools to access not just what is readily available and obvious but also those elements which are less apparent, focusing on dimensions underneath the surface, the hidden reward which drives our daily decisions.

Esme Holt can be contacted at or on +44 (0) 1491 822 515

4th October 2012

From: Marketing



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