Paul Marsden on why empathy is everything in market research today

In Blade Runner, the dystopian film starring a young Harrison Ford, an empathy test determines if an individual is a robot or a human. The idea inspired the PhD of Dr. Paul Marsden, now a chartered psychologist, well-known writer and cofounder of Brainjuicer – who first put System 1 thinking on the map. Empathy continues to be the driving force in his work today, and he believes it is vital to the future of market research. 

“Empathy is the market researcher’s super-power. It’s the uniquely human ability to experience things from somebody else’s perspective. When we step into our consumers’ shoes, we see and feel things that are invisible to traditional research. It’s like having x-ray eyes”.

Paul believes researchers should spend more time stepping into the shoes of consumers, not just metaphorically, but literally. “I’m a fan of empathy-based research, which is all about getting a first-person perspective on what it’s like to be the consumer. Empathy-based research can be remarkably insightful, and it’s already widely used in therapy, design and investigative journalism. Why don’t we use it more in consumer research?”

However, Paul believes that the sands are shifting. “Brands are realising that consumer closeness is important, and that it’s difficult to empathise with consumers when their ‘lived experience’ is reduced to a quantitative cell on a spreadsheet.”

He’s seen an empathy-based approach work already. “My colleagues were working for a pharmaceutical company and found an empathy gap between doctors and their patients. So they created a VR empathy experience for doctors to enable them to feel first-hand what it’s like to be a patient being diagnosed by a doctor. This insight had a remarkable effect on rebuilding physician empathy for their patients. This ‘EmpathyTech’ is the kind of thing that we need in market research – simple ways to help brands experience the world from the consumer perspective.”

Another EmpathyTech inspiration for Paul is The Empathy Museum. “It’s this pop-up museum that roves around the world in the form of a massive shoebox. It’s absolutely brilliant. Inside, it’s full of old shoes, and you can borrow a pair and listen to a ‘day-in-the-life’ podcast spoken by the shoes’ previous owner. You literally get to walk in the shoes of an athlete, doctor, nurse, migrant or celebrity, and experience life from their perspective. This is the kind of imaginative research we should be doing; it’s all about bringing to life people’s lived experience.”

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