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Behavioural economics in pharma

It’s not the answer to life’s big question but gives us the framework we need to understand decision making

Behavioural economics

'Deep dive'. 'Getting under the skin'. Familiar phrases in client briefs for market research looking to go 'above and beyond'. Often, they stem from underperforming sales or marketing initiatives that were given positive predictive intent or attitudes during testing.

Behavioural economics signifies a coming of age of both qualitative and quantitative enquiry, and now seriously challenges the precept that past and future behaviour can be predicted solely by attitudinal- or intention-based questions. To rely on this is at best inadequate and, at worst, woefully misleading to the researcher seeking answers to respondent motivation and/or planned behaviour.

If 'why' questions are to be included at all, they require triangulation with other data to add context and meaning, minimising subjective errors. The focus on behaviour should look more objectively at the 'what, how, when and where' viewpoint of the customer, for instance, what customers do.

Behavioural economics suggests these factors need to be explored, giving as much detail as possible. New avenues for technologically-driven social interaction which ask 'what are you doing now?' need to be developed and used, making real-time information about the 'whens' and 'wheres' of customer decisions a key motivator in marketing activity. Online social communities, whether they be HCPs or patients, give valuable and important insights in 'recency' of decision-making at both an individual and normative level.

Buzz phrases such as 'nudge', 'heuristics' and 'biases' (apparently 300 or so and increasing) and the rising tide of popular literature in the field reveal how our post-rational thoughts have little to do with our emotional and non-conscious decision-making at the point of purchase. We rely on general rules of thumb of rapid, recent and habitual information-processing.

However, to date, the implementation of this new knowledge has tended to focus on behavioural manipulation for commercial or social purposes (eg, smiley emoticons appear to be more effective motivators for road-safety compliance than speeding fines).

You would be right to ask what behavioural economics has to do with pharma business intelligence, and might well speculate that it is of value predominantly as a PR tool – say in leveraging public opinion on pharma, or maybe for healthcare serviceproviders to engage more productively with patients.

However, it has a significant capacity to help address what many qualitative researchers have sensed uneasily for years: that what people say does not reflect what they do.

Qualitative enquiry has embraced many disciplines, including the fields of social anthropology, psychology and linguistics, examining the issues of attitudes, essences and decision-making through different lenses. The understanding that methods and techniques need to engage the respondent in novel ways to generate meaningful and actionable information has never been more resonant, and behavioural economics is driving further innovations.

8 ways behavioural economics should change the way you think

  • Avoid the 'why' for deep dive
  • Focus on behaviour, not attitude
  • Get closer to the point of decision making and what happens
  • Triangulate through hybrid approaches
  • Re-frame quantitative questions in various ways and weight them
  • Structure Q&A sessions through games and creative workshops
  • Incorporate methods that capture 'tribal advocacy'
  • Provide appropriate anchor points that take into account the mediating role of the HCP rather than an end user.

Methodologies are transforming to offer respondents an entertaining and engaging interactive experience, offering them the means to deliver their views via varied platforms. Engagement, for example, can be enhanced through gamification, use of characters, branded and/ or video content and emotional or sensorial impact.

In quantitative research, behavioural economics also reinforces the need for psychometric questions to weight attitudinal responses taking heuristics and biases into account. It demands statistical methods to measure differences in alternative communication messages. Similarly, there is a need to understand the influences of preliminary questions on predictive variables or attitudes, as these factors can engender optimistic biases.

Questions and environments must be framed appropriately to capture hidden factors that influence choice. This represents an exciting opportunity for forward-thinking agencies. However, industry clients may need reassuring that these will provide more meaningful outputs than previous methodologies. In-depth briefing and greater collaboration with stimulus material and information that meets both the creative process and ethical requirements are essential.

How does it help in pharma?
And what can behavioural economics teach us about research in the healthcare arena? There is now no excuse for the healthcare researcher not to pre-empt 'herd effect', 'bias blindspots' and 'system justification' inherent in the 'tribal advocacy' we frequently observe in doctors. Similarly, given the unique asymmetry that sees doctors as decision-makers but not end users, should we not up our game in unpicking 'illusion of control', 'projection bias' and the 'availability heuristic'?

The revelations of behavioural economics highlight the complex nature of decision and judgement-making that is often hidden within a mass of neuro-connective firing that seldom surfaces in our conscious awareness. It's not an answer to life's big question – it simply gives us a greater framework to understand how people think.

The Author
Paul Mannu is a consultant at Insight Research Group and Nigel Griffiths is a director at Insight. They can be contacted at and, respectively

15th November 2012

From: Marketing



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