Memory and Qualitative Research

Sometimes qualitative research requires asking subjects about how they remember events, experiences, or situations. But memory is a tricky thing. We rarely remember perfectly and even what we think we remember is subject to second guessing. An article from The Atlantic gets at this with a very simple question. What color is a tennis ball?

You know the answer right? It’s yellow. 

Or is it green? 

The question stirred up some interesting fights in The Atlantic’s office and on twitter, but the interesting part of this debate isn’t so much about who is right, but how we all arrive at our answers. 

Bevil Conway, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute who studies color perception said he thought tennis balls were yellow based on memory, and also gave a more detailed answer at how we all perceive our world. 

“I make this decision as much on the basis of what I think I know about tennis balls—that they are yellow—as I do on what color I recall that they looked when I last saw one,” he said. “In other words, like the color of a lot of objects, how we label [a tennis ball] is determined both by perceptual and cognitive factors: the actual physical light entering your eye and ... knowledge about what people have typically labeled the objects.”

And as it is with tennis balls, so it is with other things we remember. Our perceptions are colored by what happened, what we believe, what others tell us, and many other things around us. This is a challenge our qualitative researchers are adept at dealing with. They probe respondents in various ways to bring out the most important and most accurate details from their experiences. 

Another way we deal with this is through data. When we can use individualized data sets for customers, we can start to speak very specifically about what happened with hard facts. This eases some of the burden of remembering and can unlock memories that would have otherwise been forgotten. 

For example, a restaurant client can tell us exactly what was ordered by a group of customers when they visited. In one case a respondent recalled their meal and that they were disappointed by it. When presented with the order data from their table, they recalled that the disappointment came from seeing what a friend had ordered. The friend’s dinner just looked better! It wasn’t that what the respondent ate was prepared poorly or wasn’t appealing on its own merits, it was simply not as good in comparison. 

Understanding the limits of our memories and developing tools and techniques to derive better insights from them is key for our research and analytics team. They also did the research to know that the official color of a tennis ball is Optic Yellow.