From listening to measuring. Implicit research methods in impact measurement?

Last week I racked my brain over two related questions: how to influence people? And, how to measure the influence you have? During an expert meeting on ‘measuring influencing’, organized by Oxfam Novib, I attended the very interesting workshop of the most unusual suspect among the presenters: neuromarketer Jelle Demanet from market research agency iMPULSE.

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According to Jelle the trick for a successful campaign is to influence people’s unconsciousness. It is about influencing that what lies under the slow, rational system: our emotional, fast system. Our unconscious emotions inform our decisions. Thus, by influencing emotions, you are able to influence decisions. Implicit research methods have been developed to measure these emotional, unconscious drivers and how they influence our decisions. Think about brain scans and other measuring devices looking at facial expressions, pupil dilation and skin response to just name a few. I am curious about how the development sector could possibly benefit from it.

Commercial companies are already using these methods to understand more about their potential clients and how to persuade them into buying their products. However, these researches are costly and conducting them might be too expensive for development organizations. Can we then use the existing knowledge on influencing for our own goals? Thus, instead of influencing people to buy certain products we could influence them to become politically active.

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This may not be as easy as it seems. First, the methodology is mainly tested in Europe and the United States, so it remains to be tested that the results are also similarly applicable in, let’s say, Nigeria or Pakistan. The issue of cultural sensitivity was also raised in the workshop and according to Jelle this was a legitimate concern. There are intra-cultural differences on how consumers are more likely to be influenced, but these have not been tested enough. Secondly, is our influencing work comparable with large brands like Coca Cola? Comparing people’s unconscious response when it comes to simple “things” like consumer choices will undoubtedly be different when people are dealing with complex issues like oppression, violence and exploitation.

Now let’s turn to the second central question of the expert meeting. Can we use these methods to improve our impact evaluations of influencing projects? One of the hard things within impact evaluation is to obtain reliable data. If we use stated research methods like surveys or interviews, then how do we know we do not receive socially desirable answers to questions about sensitive topics? Jelle proposed we use online facial recognition tests to measure people’s unconscious emotions. The technology is already so advanced that people can download these programs on their phones or tablets. Therefore this could be done in addition to the common surveys or interviews in order to see if respondents’ unconscious reactions are in line with what they say explicitly.

But personally I do not see a future in this. First of all, the success of an interview lies with the trust level between the interviewer and interviewed. How would trust be possible if you are holding a big fat Ipad in front of someone’s face? Secondly, I think it would be too complicated to analyze the data. If the device would find that a certain question inflicts the emotion anger, how can you be sure of what the person is angry about? It could be with the topic of the question, but it could also be with you for asking the question. Furthermore, as an anthropologist in the making, I don’t think it is always important to know the “truth”. What is important is what people are saying. And although I’m sure that the neuroscience can provide rational answers to most of the questions I raise, I still feel uncomfortable. I guess my underlying emotional system definitely has the upper hand in informing my decisions.

By Nina Wallbach, intern Impact Measurement and Knowledge. More about Nina here!
Photos by Rebke Klokke

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