Are we losing our ability to be introspective?

Are we losing our ability to be introspective?

Sonya Turner

Aug 18, 2014

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Last month, psychologists from Harvard and UVA released a study showing something that we perhaps already knew, but didn’t want to believe was true: People don’t like to be alone with their thoughts.

In this study, participants were left alone in a room for 6 to 15 minutes with no distractions, and they didn’t like it. In many cases, they really didn’t like it—to the point that they gave themselves electric shocks rather than just sit there occupied by nothing but their minds.

Think about that. People would rather experience the pain of an electric shock (that they had earlier said they’d pay to avoid), than sit quietly in their own mind for a few minutes.

It’s no surprise, then, to read that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that when asked to recall their activities in the past 24 hours, 83% of Americans said they spent no time at all relaxing or thinking.

Now, we all know that being busy, tapped, overscheduled and on the go carries a certain kind of prestige.  No one dares admit that they have free time on their hands, that they enjoyed an idle hour, that there is a blank spot on their Outlook calendar. In our moment-to-moment culture, such gaps in busyness suggest a certain type of weakness, a lack of initiative, or even pure laziness.

Thank goodness, then, for our smartphones, right? These trusty sidekicks remove the possibility that we will ever have downtime or need to be alone in our own heads. If we’re waiting in line, sitting in traffic, or simply find ourselves with nothing to do, we turn to our phones and tablets with such immediacy it’s become an instinct. Why sit there and ruminate when we could see what’s happening on Instagram?

It’s kind of funny, when you think about it, but is there a darker side to it, too? More than just the social pressure we feel to be “always on,” are we losing our ability to be introspective? As Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome told the New York Times, “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

The ramifications of this are profound and broad reaching on a societal level, but for researchers who need to get inside consumers’ heads every day, it can be downright scary. Sure, people might be willing to fill their downtime by taking a survey or doing a focus group, but what will you be able to get out of them?

If people are so hell bent on avoiding introspection that they will self-administer an electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts, how do you get consumers to give you deep, authentic answers? How do you get them to leave their comfort zone and actually go below the surface?

There does seem to be one saving grace. That same Harvard/UVA study found that people are more comfortable being alone with their thoughts if they have a plan for what to think about. And as researchers, that’s what we do… tell people what we’d like them to think about. But while this will help alleviate some of the resistance people have developed, it can’t make up entirely for the “atrophy” that has happened to so many of us.

This is where the research approach becomes critically important. Just asking questions can’t be counted on to penetrate people’s increasing resistance to spending time inside their own heads. The researcher needs to call on a host of skills and techniques to get them there—and keep them there long enough to reveal findings of importance.

At iModerate, we developed a framework called ThoughtPath, based in Cognitive Psychology. This approach was inspired in part because we were hearing from client after client that they were increasingly frustrated with the lack of depth they were getting from some of their research with other partners. They would do, say, a shopalong, only to find that consumers weren’t able to articulate why or how they made the decision to purchase a particular item. Of course, this information existed in their brain somewhere, but people wouldn’t really stop and take the time to think about their actions.

Collaborating with academic and industry experts, we learned that by using three particular elements of cognitive theory—Experience, Perception and Identity—we were able to engage people on a deeper level, where they could more easily access their authentic emotions and drivers.  What’s more, when we sequence these theories appropriately during the course of a conversation, people think back, reflect, and go deeper into their own thoughts. Today, these theories and sequencing form the backbone of ThoughtPath and guide our consumer conversations every day.

Although it was nearly 5 years ago that we began our ThoughtPath journey, our reasons for developing and sticking with this approach seem even more critical today. Judging by the findings from this recent Harvard/UVA study, researchers will face an increasingly difficult task in eliciting authentic, well-thought out answers from the consumers whose opinions matter so much. The differentiator will be the ability to ask the questions in ways that move people past this growing resistance to introspection, that get them to flex those atrophied muscles and go to a place that delivers true insight.

Sonya Turner

Director, Insights

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