Saiesh Ajudhiya (MA Social and Psychological Research, University of the Witwatersrand)

To have a career, a vocation or a calling is the modern age dream. Many of us have been socialised from a young age to think about our future, think about the steps we need to take to solidify financial wealth and retire happy. In my world, this was often along the lines of, “Are you becoming a doctor? A lawyer? Or a charted accountant?” So it follows, that one of the biggest reveals of my life was discovering the broad scope of professions that exist; in particular, stumbling across the incredible dynamic between psychology and research. Little did I know, at that time, that the next few years would send me on a whirlwind tour, going from lecture halls to boardrooms quoting Damasio and Ekman.

To understand how I got here, let us go back in time for a moment. After taking a range of subjects during my undergraduate degree, it was during my prescribed psychology research module that I first fell in love with research (which is arguably one of the most underrated university programmes). I discovered that one of the main advantages of this course is its versatility, which allows you to easily traverse across disciplines. It also teaches you the basic tenets of being critical of the information you consume and/or produce. Being, like most graduates are, in the uncertain position of what career to choose, I chose a path of research, confident that no matter where I ended up, research will be my secret weapon.

But, not yet willing to leave academia, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Social and Psychological Research. It was during this degree that I learnt to break away from conventional theoretical understanding, and instead, interrogate and practise research within context. My understanding of research as a linear process was quickly brought into question as I realised that most researchers have to get creative with the limited resources available. Therefore, my biggest lesson was learning how to do the best you can, with the best you have, and so it was at that moment that the pragmatic researcher was born.

This was my outlook as I entered the world of corporate research. However, coming from social science circles, my only expectation of marketing research was that I would spend the next few months unearthing what colour of soap people like – far from the complexities of researching concepts such as theory of mind, or cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, being a true millennial, I thought to myself I’ll give it a go for the ‘experience’.

Three years on, it is safe to say that I have stayed for more than just ‘experience’. During my time, I have discovered the solid foundation that social and psychological research has laid for generating market insights. Where, understanding consumer behaviour requires a thorough understanding of how people make decisions, but more importantly, being sensitive to how we conduct research with and about people.

The basic premise of psychological inquiry is about interpreting and understanding behaviour. It is about knowing that human beings are not as uniform and constant as the laws of nature. However, in a corporate environment, it is easy to get lost within the numbers, where multi-million-rand decisions get made based on human Key Performance Indicators. It is in these moments that I remind myself of those lecture hall days, putting on my critical, yet pragmatic, research hat.

Of course, it may be a stretch for us to bring Freud into the boardroom, but what we can bring is our wealth of knowledge on decision making theories, social behaviours and emotion. We can offer an alternative perspective, which is not based on revenue streams, giving the numbers meaning. It is because of this ability, that as research psychologists or social scientists, we are able to help organisations become more critical and conscious of their epistemological stance, particularly in terms of producing knowledge on how people feel or think. This makes marketers and researchers alike, more cautious of making claims for the sake of making claims, and avoiding any wild and promiscuous assumptions about behaviour, to paraphrase Professor Kevin Whitehead.

So, whilst transitioning into the corporate world has taken some getting used to – especially learning how to condense a year-long study into a few PowerPoint slides – there are many advantages of being a student of psychology and/or research. Fortunately, the research process does not change much across disciplines, and so being equipped with a thorough understanding of social research, it was easy to adapt to this new environment. What really made the transition from student to corporate researcher a unique experience, is the interplay between research and psychology.

My background in social and psychological research has given me a voice to contribute to the drive for change in the marketing industry. It is because of the tireless work of professionals in this field that we have a better understanding of the impact of advertising on people’s emotion, or the social footprint that is left behind by prescribing certain behaviours, or the effects of promoting stereotypes.

Gone are the days of cut-throat marketing that is purely focused on the bottom line. We are entering the age of social consciousness in the advertising world, which makes it an exciting and curious time for me as a social researcher. So, while many organisations and research houses may still contemplate the question of what colour of soap people like, progressive businesses are on a journey of using research and insights to create advertising aimed at education and driving social change for the betterment of consumers and society as a whole.

I may have thought that graduation was the end of my student days, but it was only the beginning. Working in such a dynamic and diverse industry presents new challenges and lessons on a daily basis, where I sometimes feel that I never left the lecture room.

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