Knowing the Unknown: How Behavioral Observation Can Answer What Surveys Cannot

The traditional methods for uncovering usage patterns, feelings or attitudes is to use a focus group or survey data. These methods have merit and serve a useful purpose; however, it is known that the drivers of behavioral action are often unknown to the one performing the action. Attitudes, feelings and motivations are System 1 properties, whereas declarative knowledge is solely a job for System 2. The key, therefore, is to uncover the revealed data through direct observation. This is best accomplished when the respondent is unaware or minimally aware that s/he is being observed, a technique we call unobtrusive observation.

We live in a digital age, with cameras surrounding us at all times. Gone are the days of VCR tapes and clunky cameras staring the respondent in the face. Today’s technology allows us to record willing respondents with minimal invasion; in some cases respondents can even record themselves with their own smartphones. From there, behavioral scientists annotate for actions of interest, creating a quantitative profile of behavior. This methodology can be used in such varied projects as daily oral care habits, how hands are washed or how in-home products are used throughout the day. Data can be linked back to declared data for comparison or related to qualitative assessments to uncover to true drivers of behavioral action.

Recently, we have shown how our unobtrusive observational method was used to drive product innovation in refrigerators. Furthermore, we will show several case studies demonstrating the use of behavioral observation in examining the best scent for a new soap launch, how respondents brush and floss their teeth at home and how consumers purchase items in a cafeteria. Taken together, this method yields powerful insights that uncover the true drivers of behavioral action.

Presentation type:

Subjects covered:


  1. Declared data relies upon System 2 processes and does not reveal what actually happens.
  2. Behavioral observation is readily available and robust.
  3. Unobtrusive observation allows market researchers to gain deeper insights into how products are used in the natural environment.


Presentation Materials:

Knowing the Unknown