In the push to revolutionize the market research industry’s insight-gathering process, the primary focus has been on finding and using new technology and platforms to field the research. 

But in many cases, we are just migrating the traditional question/answer format to these new technological platforms. This approach overlooks the need to explore moving beyond questions that focus on just accessing the conscious brain. Focus should also be on finding ways to unlock the less-conscious brain and how to integrate all five senses (touch, sight, taste, smell, sound) into our methodological approach in order to gather more powerful insights.

The latest findings in the field of neuroscience and perceptual psychology are strongly suggesting that our historical reliance on the conscious brain for answers is limiting and can sometimes provide misleading information. In reality, we rely more on our five senses to draw perceptions and form opinions than has been commonly acknowledged.

As perceptual psychologist, Lawrence D. Rosenblum points out in his book “See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses”1:

Our more conscious brains are busy with trivialities of our day, our less-conscious brains are engaged in much more interesting endeavors. Our less-conscious brains are absorbing a profusion of sights, sounds, and smells using processes that seem superhuman…the brain doesn’t much care which sense organ provides information…your brain is constantly reacting to stimuli for which you have little conscious awareness.

So how do we access the less-conscious brains while still gathering verbal and visual feedback? 

Use Disrupters 

We need to consider stepping back from the straight verbal question/answer structure. Adding disrupters to how we ask people for feedback may appear to run counter to the biblical injunction of not putting a stumbling block before the blind. But, while adding disrupting elements to how we ask and how we want a person to answer may initially make it more difficult to respond, in reality we are actually providing the tools to make it easier for that person to give us richer insights to our questions. 

Adding the disrupter as an additional step integrates a non-verbal sensory experience into the question/answer experience, and this expands how people process the question and then articulate an answer. Disrupters force people to go outside normal, automatic top-of-mind responses that tend to downplay the multi-sensory experiences that shape our perceptions and opinions. By enabling people to access different parts of their less-conscious brains, we are having them better integrate their multi-sensory experiences and perceptions into their feedback. 

Disrupters work with just about anyone and they don’t require recruiting for creative people.

Synesthesia Provides a Pathway to Integrating the Other Senses

Synesthesia is the neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Below are a few examples that build on integrating synesthesia into how we ask for feedback.

Use Touch as the Trigger

As researchers, we are constantly asking people to provide feedback on how they feel about a product, service, advertisement, etc. Most people use the prism of like/don’t like as the starting point and it is sometimes hard for them to get beyond that. But if you have them access touch as the starting point, you will begin to access the less-conscious brain. 

Touch acts as a disrupter and forces people to both process the question and provide feedback more broadly by expanding how they think about the multi-layers of their perceptions.

To set up this tactile adventure, find fun items that have different textures, shapes and dimensions. Put one item in a drawstring bag so the person can feel, but not see, the item. Each person doing this exercise gets one bag (or, if you have a larger group, you can group people in pairs).

For the pair exercise, one person puts his or her hand into the bag and the other person takes notes. Based on touch – what is being felt, but not seen – the person whose hand is in the bag will rapidly provide one word descriptions of what they feel (e.g., slimy, sticky, sharp, hot, damp, round, squishy, prickly, etc.). The other person will write down all the words on a sheet of paper. (Note that each group creates its own list and then uses their list and only their list when they answer the upcoming question.)

Try this “touch and describe” exercise before you expose respondents to the subject matter you want to talk about. Once you have introduced the subject matter – the product, advertisement or service – have them provide their feedback by initially using their descriptor words. These words will be used as the baseline for developing their thoughts. It doesn’t have to be literal. For example, they can build off slimy to convey an uncomfortable feeling or an idea that conveys something that can stick or something for kids (being slimed was an integral part of the old Nickelodeon show “You Can’t Do That On Television”). 

Using Shapes to Capture Feelings and Perception 

Another approach involves asking respondents to create line-drawings of a shape that conveys their reactions, thoughts and feelings. 

Don’t worry if they say they can’t draw because the lack of drawing ability doesn’t hinder anyone’s ability to create a shape. The key to this exercise is focusing on how they feel and not how well they can draw. In fact, sometimes it is easier for them to create the shape without looking at what they are drawing because, by not seeing, they are better focusing on translating what they are feeling into a shape. 

Tell them they can make their line drawing as complex or as simple as they want. This exercise works best when you have them create and draw a shape because you are not constraining them to choose from specific shapes. Once they are done, the shape they have drawn can usually telegraph what they are thinking. It is also good to have them verbally explain how the shape represents what they are thinking. 

If you feel you need to use training wheels, then provide specific shapes, but realize that standard shapes tend to be much more simplistic and one-dimensional than the shapes that they would create on their own.

If we are asking for their perception of a new shampoo that they have used, or a breakfast cereal they just tasted, or an ad they just saw, we are asking them to start out by using a shape as a platform to convey the complexity of their feelings and perceptions. Isn’t it clear which shape conveys harshness? 

Smells Act as Window to Emotions

Memories, associations and scents are strongly intertwined. Scent can trigger an emotion and put us in different states of mind and even affect the mood we are in. Think of summer at the beach, a campfire in the mountains, freshly squeezed orange juice, a bus without air conditioning on the way to summer camp, sitting in a brand new car, or catching a whiff of burnt toast. Each of these scenes conjures a strong, dominant smell and unleashes imagery and an emotional reaction that we have stored in our brains.

Create a list of diverse situations that have strong associated smells. Then, instead of asking how they feel about an idea, ask them to leverage their answer from a dominant scent and describe how that scene/scent combination ties to how they feel about the product or idea.

Think in 3-D

We see the world in 3-D. Yet, when we ask people to create collages, we typically ask them to think and express themselves in a 2-D world. Therefore, they tend to select magazine or Internet photos that are just literal representations of what they are thinking. But 3-D collaging requires them to step back, think creatively and incorporate sensory perceptions into building their collage. How an item feels, smells or sounds is incorporated into the collage and becomes part of the story.

3-D collaging is something that should be done as pre-work at home since we do not want to give respondents a pile of pre-selected items. The beauty of this exercise is that they get to find and select whatever items they want to use. 

Working with 3-D objects creates an environment where people do an in-depth examination of their behavior and attitudes and then translate them into a 3-D environment. For example, a candy wrapper can be used to represent indulgence whereas a condom (or a sanitary napkin) can represent protection. (Even though we never give condoms as an example, it is amazing the number of people who integrate them into their collages.)

Summing Up

These examples are just a few of the disrupters that can be used to access the less-conscious brain. They provide a key to better accessing the five senses that impact how we really experience and think about things. It also helps broaden the tools and the language that people can use to express their feelings and reactions.

In our rush to embrace new technology, remember that we can also better explore ways to help people express what they are observing, feeling and thinking in their less-conscious brain.