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What Market Researchers Can Learn From Carl Jung

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I’ve been reading Carl Jung’s The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, a collection of Jung’s major essays written from 1933 onward. In the eponymous opening essay, Jung focuses on the concept of the archetype.   

The archetype, like all numinous contents, are relatively autonomous, they cannot be integrated simply by rational means, but require a dialectical procedure, a real coming to terms with them, often conducted by the patient in dialog form, so that, without knowing it, he puts into effect the alchemical definition of the meditatio: “an inner colloquy with one’s good angel.”

Last week a client from the retail industry approached me with a question. They needed help researching how average Americans describe their financial situations. The idea was to ask a few hundred people to describe how they budget and make decisions about what to buy. It’s a difficult research topic. Most people generally avoid talking about money—even in an anonymous online survey.   

Although the client had a handful of questions they wanted to include in the survey, I recommended just one. “In terms of your financial situation, is there something you think about often but rarely talk about out loud?” I liked this question because, regardless of the income bracket each respondent fell into, it was relatable. We conducted the survey (n=500) and found a variety of responses, each of which helped the client understand their customers better.

I thought about Jung. People are motivated to finish surveys quickly and in a way that satisfies whoever is conducting the survey. However, a well-crafted survey question can side-step this problem. Answering our money question required respondents to have a short conversation with themselves. That dialectic—the “inner colloquy,” as Jung put it—created tension that people had to resolve. There’s a “coming to terms” involved that made the responses valuable to the client.

The influence of modern economics looms over market research like a colossus, and the result is researchers writing survey questions to extract information*. Jung provides an alternative source of inspiration. Instead of extracting information, a good surveyor should create tension that people are motivated to resolve.

* As Charles Booth said when asked about his inspiration for studying poverty in London: “The root idea with which I began … was that every fact I needed to know was known to someone and that the information had simply to be collected and put together.” (Source)

Image source: https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-carl-jung-4164462

Sam McNerney