How to measure what people really feel but won’t admit to


In this study, our client is a not-for-profit, focused on a social issue.

Given this study was involved social issues, including cost of living, climate change, mental health, homelessness, etc., we needed to measure views and attitudes surrounding sensitive topics.

While we can reassure respondents that their feedback is completely anonymous, etc., given opportunity, some will moderate their response to say the ‘right thing’ or not admit to what they feel.


Enter Implicit Association – leveraging behavioral economics and Stroop Effect.

From the fantastic work done around behavioral economics, founded by Daniel Kahneman, we know that consumers tend to make decisions in two ways. This is fast, gut-reaction, implicit reactions, coming from the subconscious. Or, it is slow, considered, rational. Most research falls down because it spends too much time in the latter, and less time in the former.

What we need to do is get individuals into the frame of mind of thinking quickly, and responding with their subconscious associations.

Step one – we set the task up as a game, and ask people to respond ‘as quick as they can’, helping to reduce the temptation to post rationalise.

We mash this with what we know of the Stroop Effect, which taps into Spreading Activation Theory of Memory.

The short is the theory our brain organises like ideas more closely together – the word ‘blue’ is more closely linked in memory with things like ‘ocean’ and ‘sky’, than ‘fire engine’.

Step two – we look at the time taken to respond to the option we put forward to them. A fast ‘yes’ or a fast ‘no’ indicates a strong, implicit association. Slower ‘yes’ or ‘no’ indicates something that takes time. This can help reveal a perception they feel they need to censor, or don’t strongly believe.


So what’s the vibe?


This study highlights the importance of thinking carefully about one’s measurement techniques when it comes to sensitive topics.

It is possible to measure almost anything, but it’s critical to measure these variables in the right way to get at the truth of what people are thinking and feeling.


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