This installment of Ask the Emotional Expert features John Nolte, Ph.D., noted psychodramatist and author of The Psychodrama Papers. Dr. Nolte trained under J.L. Moreno, the founder of psychodrama.
Here’s what Dr. Nolte has to say about assessing consumer emotions via psychodrama.
Conner: I always start out with this question: More and more we are learning that emotions drive humans’, and therefore consumers’, behavior. What are your thoughts about that?
Nolte: From a psychodramatic point of view, emotions are intentional. That is, there is always some object to which the emotion is connected. Basically, an emotion is triggered by a change in the situation in which we find ourselves. As soon as we perceive ourselves facing a danger, for example, we experience fear not only as an emotion, but as a message concerning what we should do. Fear tells us to get away from that which is perceived as dangerous. So an emotion is an immediate evaluation of our situation and an instruction on what to do about it. If we perceive a barrier between ourselves and a goal toward which we are moving, we experience anger (or one of the several variants of anger) and the instruction to get it out of the way. If we perceive that something is of value, whether material like a diamond, or not so material as knowledge about something, the emotion aroused is desire which instructs us to possess it. So I certainly consider emotion to be involved in every act, including the act of purchasing something.
Conner: How do or would psychodramas work to get at emotions that drive consumers’ behavior?
Nolte: Psychodrama is so flexible and creative that it is difficult to answer this question in a very specific way, to say that this is the way to do it. What we know is that people do not act in a vacuum. That is, every action is preceded by a warming up process, a period of preparing for the action of purchasing. So a reasonable place to begin is to focus the respondents on a recent purchase, and a purchase which has something in common with that for which the research is being conducted. For example, the director might ask a group (or individual) to recall the last time that they bought an automobile. The director might then ask a willing member of the group to re-enact the actual purchase of the car. In the process, he might ask the protagonist (respondent) to soliloquize the feelings he has as he drives the car away from the dealer. A next step might be to ask: “When did the idea of buying this car first come into your mind?” That event is explored and all the feelings involved elicited through psychodramatic techniques, largely for this purpose, soliloquy and doubling. The director then guides the protagonist through all the steps which were taken psychologically and emotionally that led to the purchase of this specific car. This could involve researching on the internet, talking with friends or spouse, all the positive emotions instructing him to buy, and the negative emotions instructing him otherwise; for example, “see if you can’t get a better price;” “maybe a different make would be better;” “maybe you can’t afford to buy just now…wait a little while;” etc. The object is to consider all elements that go into the decision to buy. In the process, it is quite likely that we would discover that many of the emotional reactions could be related to early experiences in one way or another. These, too, can be explored and could yield valuable information about the development of attitudes related to the purchase of a car.
One could expect that participating in the psychodramatic action would warm other participants to their experiences, both common and different from those of the first protagonist. These, too, can be re-enacted and the emotions elicited explored in depth.
It’s likely that however we start, we will discover unanticipated avenues to explore.
Conner: Many would argue that traditional two-hour focus groups, especially with a good moderator, can do the same thing as psychodramas. How would you respond to that? Do you think psychodramas are more effective at uncovering emotions than traditional focus groups?
Nolte: I doubt that anybody who has participated in a psychodrama would argue that a focus group is as effective as a psychodrama in eliciting both information and emotions.
The advantage of psychodrama over focus groups lies in the action techniques which psychodrama provides for accessing emotions at a deeper level. For example, setting a scene and re-enacting an event activates memory, and the emotions associated with it, in a more complete way, involving all the senses including kinesthetic ones. Techniques such as soliloquy and doubling permit a detailed exploration of of the subject’s emotional state which almost always includes a mixture of emotions. Psychodrama also allows for exploration of the subject’s history with emotions or emotional complexes.
So, it’s the action dimension of psychodrama which makes it more effective than the more passive modality of the focus group.
Conner: What are some of the special techniques used within psychodramas that are especially effective at uncovering important emotions that drive consumer behavior?
Nolte: “Setting the scene” anchors the protagonist in a concrete situation which includes all of the respondent’s previous experiences, including emotions. Movement in this structured space enhances recall of both an experience and the emotions associated with that experience. Psychodramatists know that memory is not simply a neurological process — it’s a neuro-muscular one.
“Soliloquy” involves inward focus on the bodily manifestations of emotion as well as on conceptualization which can arise from emotion as well as elicit emotion.
“Doubling” adds the assistance of another person in the search for emotional expression.
“Mirroring” and “role reversal” are two other highly useful techniques.
Conner: Are psychodramas better conducted in group sessions or in individual sessions?
Nolte: By and large, psychodrama in groups is more effective than when it is used individually. There may be special circumstances which point to working with an individual. They are rare. The group can be considered as a significant and integral aspect of the psychodramatic method, and a psychodrama can be considered as a product of group effort and collaboration.
Conner: And how about the amount of time and number of respondents needed to make a group psychodrama most effective?
Nolte: This is another flexible component of psychodrama. The most workable group is probably between 7 and 12 participants with 2½ to 3 hours for a session.
Conner: What advice would you give consumer researchers who are interested in using psychodramas in their work?
Nolte: Engage a well-trained, experienced psychodramatist who has experience working outside the field of psychotherapy and who is comfortable with non-therapeutic applications of psychodrama.
Conner: Thank you very much, Dr. Nolte. I know this from my experience, but you’ve neatly explained why psychodrama is a highly effective emotional assessment technique.