FEATURE1 December 2010

Diary: Time travel, texting and takeaway

A roundup of things that caught our eye in and around the research industry this month.


YouGov has been doing some research on superpowers. Sadly this was not a scientific experiment in an underground lab with fizzing test tubes and giant lasers – just a survey. So when YouGov claims that time travel is “the nation’s favourite superpower”, what they mean is that it’s the one most people said they’d like to have when they asked them, and not that the firm got a mad scientist to actually bestow superhuman powers upon members of its panel for an ethnographic study. Such a study would have been fascinating, if tricky to manage. The power of telepathy would be a convenient way of collecting superpanellists’ feedback on how they enjoyed rescuing the runaway train or thwarting the diamond thief. But in the case of time travel the logistical challenges might prove too great. What do you tell a panellist who rings up demanding their incentive 10 years before you’ve had the idea to conduct the research in the first place?

Correlation, meet causation

A study of teenage behaviour has found that those who text a lot are more likely to have had sex, to drink, to smoke, to be poor and to come from single-parent homes. Inside the heads of researchers, sentences like that should set off a warning light marked ‘Correlation does not imply causation’. Sadly, the author of the study managed to get himself quoted in the press release saying: “The startling results of this study suggest that when left unchecked texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects on teenagers.” That sounds a lot like causation to me, but he later assured journalists that the study was “not intended to show causality”. To the credit of those publications that ran the story, most were cautious about presenting a causal link. And none of them tried to claim that “Smoking makes you poor” or “Texting makes your parents split up”, which would have been equally valid conclusions. As one sensible blogger pointed out, what the study really reveals is that “outgoing teens like to do things outgoing teens like to do”.

Beautiful Filipinas

A row broke out in the Philippines this month over a campaign promoting the islands to tourists. The problem was the web address chosen for the new tourism site, which was almost identical to that of a porn site. Visitors who mistook the first ‘p’ in beautifulpilipinas.com for an ‘f’ found themselves presented with a kind of natural beauty they had not expected. The site has now been taken down. AFP reports that the rebranding was the result of market research conducted by an advertising firm which, not surprisingly, remains unnamed.

Give up, go home

With Paul the Psychic Octopus safely assassinated, market researchers may have been lulled into believing that their jobs were safe. Sadly not: you have all been replaced. And by whom? The pizza delivery boy, that’s whom. Takeaway website Hungryhouse.co.uk has been tracking the volume of orders made during each singer’s performance on X Factor. This, they modestly claim, offers a “near foolproof” way of predicting which two acts will end up singing for survival. I bet all you la-di-da research types feel pretty silly now with your probability samples and your n equals whatever, don’t you? Editorial staff at Research are now scouring the job pages for openings at a fast-growing new publication called Takeaway Analyst.