In Pursuit of Personal Bias: Pushing Past the Surface to Understand How People Think and Act

By Kathryn Spitzberg Johnson, Big Squirrel

We are taking a stance on issues like never before. But what is really driving our actions? The answer isn’t always clear. Understanding hidden, personal biases and how they motivate people has been at the root of marketing and advertising for decades. Today, understanding what people think and how they will act is more difficult than ever for brands and companies, no matter their industry. While other delineations – like what is right and what is wrong, what is real and what is fake – continue to be questioned, individual’s own personal biases have drawn firmer lines.

Though the lines are firmer, oftentimes they are not drawn or are not readily visible until a person takes action – whether by voicing opinions on social media, by making purchases from companies that reflect their thinking, or by making their vote count. The 2020 election is a perfect example that what people think or intend to do doesn’t always lead to what they actually do. What the polls told us before election day wasn’t what we saw on election day because thoughts and opinions don’t necessarily reveal values and motivations which are what lead to real actions. The problem with polling, surveys and even focus groups, is that they remain on the surface, revealing people’s intentions, but often missing out on a deeper level of personal bias that informs the actions people take.

Now is the time for brands to be in active pursuit of understanding personal biases – how they are originally formed, how they are impacted by cultural shifts and different types of information, and how they are influenced by family, friends, the community and those around us. All of these variables contribute to deeply-rooted preferences that ultimately influence how we think, feel and act. In order to have any influence, marketers must be able to understand consumers at this deep level, going well beyond the surface with their communications, messaging, products, services and more.

What drives these deeper motivations?

Pursuing personal bias is a matter of mind, heart and body – thinking, feeling and action. Bringing key audience insights to light in these three areas is essential for marketers and advertisers.

  • Mind – Digital media consumption has gained a lot of attention recently, as people seek online entertainment during periods of lockdown due to the pandemic. Additionally, division among specific consumer groups has been at least partially attributed to where they are consuming their news. Understanding an audience’s mindset means that brands and marketers must examine what information people are absorbing (and from where) when it comes to news mediums, books, music, streaming entertainment and more. There are more and more informational channels popping up almost daily, and having the knowledge of how individuals are feeding their minds can help to build the foundation for deeper connections.
  • Heart – The heart is a tricky thing to tackle as a marketer. The world of feelings proves to be a complex conundrum, and a questionnaire or survey alone simply can’t provide enough insight. Many people hide their “heart” or true sentiment because they may be protecting themselves from judgment or they just may not be able to find the words to express how they’re feeling. Think about the simple example of asking someone to describe what kind of person they are or their strengths and weaknesses. Many may not know what to say or where to start. However, if you ask what animal best represents who they are, they will talk endlessly about a bear’s strength or an eagle’s vision. Another technique that can get to their “heart space” and help reveal who they are is to speak to the people that know them best. Their friends and family can likely come up with a thousand wonderful points to describe them in depth.
  • Body – Yes, our locations are constantly tracked by our ever-present smartphones. However, accessing this geo-location data and then cross-referencing it with, for example, pertinent physical storefronts is often out of reach for marketers. Understanding where people are physically spending their time can complement efforts to understand the mind and heart, providing a more complete picture of each individual. Right now, admittedly, much of the world is spending time in one location (at home), but this makes movements into other locals even more intriguing. Is your audience just leaving home for essential activities like grocery shopping? Or are they going out more often for dining (where allowed), visiting friends and family or simply spending time outdoors? These movements can give powerful insights into what people value, especially right now.

Uncovering insights into the mind, heart and body

Now that we have a fundamental understanding of the aspects that create and influence personal bias, how do we dig in? Qualitative consumer research can mine the opinions and the decisions of your consumers, and reveal their embedded predispositions.

During COVID, qualitative research has undergone a sea of change, moving methodologies online and, in some ways, making this type of research more accessible. Conversations that normally would happen in-home are still happening in-home but via Zoom. As a researcher, this means you have to be smart about questioning to make sure to get to the details about people that normally would come from pure observation being in the same room. Without the ability to do in-store shop alongs, it’s more important than ever for you to have the quality stimuli to help people talk about their emotions and feelings and share thoughts that would normally come up naturally in a store environment. Since most people have roommates, friends and/or family under the same roof, you can leverage this situation to get a better understanding of people by asking their friends and family deeper questions about motivations, strengths and weaknesses. A group session can be fun and can lead to some surprising and interesting insights. To get into people’s hearts and minds, you can ask them what media they are consuming, and even have them show you their viewing history. New technology, like smartphone diaries, can allow people to share things like location or purchases with you in real-time. Having one-on-one or (socially distant) group interactions with members of your audience is critical and can be just as informative as if you were in the room with them.

Personal bias is driving decision making in more complex ways. Division among audiences and in the whole of society is becoming commonplace. Using richer insights that go beyond the surface –  that pay attention to the mind, heart and body – brands can then create strategies that will resonate with deeper behavioral and emotional patterns. Instead of making decisions based on what people say they intend to do, brands and marketers must employ the right research methodologies to help understand what truly motivates people, and how their personal biases may be driving their actions.
About the author: Kathryn Spitzberg Johnson has an insatiable appetite for identifying cultural insights that shape consumer behavior and attitudes. At Big Squirrel (, her passion lies in helping brands navigate cultural currents and behavioral shifts in order to truly connect. Kathryn has worked with a diverse range of clients including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle and many others. Her enthusiasm for discovery drives an obsession with the intersection between business, design, entertainment, art and technology, and their impact on popular culture, brands, and behavior.