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FEATURE19 September 2011

The illusion and reality of research

Features

Richard Wiseman told Esomar Congress today that asking people to predict their behaviour tends to be a waste of time. We caught up with him after the talk to find out more.

Research: Your work focuses on tricks and illusions, and things that are fun or quirky. But the psychology that lies behind it all is important. Do you ever worry that people won’t take this kind of thing seriously?
Wiseman: Some people will just see it as fun and say, that’s interesting. I would hope a few people then go slightly beyond that and look at the implications. I want people to find that for themselves.

A lot of my work is quite oblique. If somebody asked me, will you look at eyewitness testimony in the law, I wouldn’t set something up that looked like an eyewitness testimony experiment. I’d set up something up like the colour changing card trick.

My job is to give people something to talk about. I can convey almost nothing in a 45-minute talk, but if you can make people go outside, talk about it among themselves, go on the web, find other material, think about the implications for themselves, then you’ll start to get something rolling in that person.

What’s your view of market research, given that a lot of it is based on asking people questions in a way that, as your work shows, often doesn’t work?
I think that’s the answer to that question! When you ask somebody a question and they tell you how they’re going to behave, that doesn’t tell you how they’re going to behave. Make of that what you will. If you want to run a survey where you ask people what they’re going to do next week, know that what they tell you will have no validity at all.

Are you sceptical of market research results when you hear them mentioned in the press, for example?
It depends how the data have been collected and how it’s being presented. I think there’s rising scepticism among people now who are using Twitter and Facebook and so on. You’re seeing that the old days of, “This is a fact, we found it out last week”, or the notion of, “I read it in the newspaper therefore it’s true” – those days are gone. Instead, these things are being pulled apart and looked at more sceptically, so there’s going to have to be much more sophisticated messaging, and it’s got to be true. So people are raising an eyebrow when they read that 50% of people are acting on global warming, which is just silly, and not having any impact I don’t think.

What sort of techniques are effective then?
Look at their behaviour. It’s that simple. To find out if someone’s hungry don’t ask them, see how much they’re eating at the next meal. It’s that straightforward. If you can’t measure the thing you’re trying to measure, you don’t know how they feel about it. Look at how they behave in a meaningful situation, in an embedded situation. And if you can’t do it, then don’t worry about it, but there’s no need to take another measure which you can take but which doesn’t tell you anything. You’re wasting your time.

Have you thought about applying your experimental techniques to business?
We do get approached by companies that want to find out what people think of their products and so on. But the sort of experiments I would run are time-consuming and relatively expensive compared to doing a survey, so I can see the attraction of just asking people.

6 Comments

7 years ago

I'm intrigued that your reference to such techniques mentioned in this article as 'experimental'. Being creative to find new ways to observe behavior or gather research has been happening for a long time now. In Melbourne Australia we have picked up an Albert Einstein phrase "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." We have several groups meeting monthly in Melbourne Australia totally focused around sharing ideas and techniques such as behavior design, service design and creative emergence. These techniques still use the philosophy of the design process of research and people focused observation to reveal key insights that drive the pathways to create brand new innovative enterprises. These new ways at looking at problems are no longer experimental, they are here to stay and will be a differentiator for business, social and enterprising leadership.

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7 years ago

Hi willdonovan, I think I was a little unclear - what I meant by 'experimental techniques' was simply the techniques that Wiseman uses in his experiments. I hadn't meant to suggest that these techniques are particularly new or untested (although arguably the way he applies them, and the topics he picks, are). I would agree with you that most of the techniques he uses are no longer experimental. Sorry for the confusion.

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7 years ago

Thanks heaps for the clarification and responding to my comment. I use to work heavily in research and market research and branched out into the design of UX/CX as a web developer and those research skills resonate in those fields very strongly. I'm amazed how many non-design research groups have not adopted this type of thinking in their industries. Thank you for writing this article and exposing this to the 'research' audience.

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7 years ago

No argument here. We at In Vivo have been using Behavioral Economics based research techniques for 20 years for these exact reasons. We see corelation between rational Purchase Intent and actual purchase in the teens.

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7 years ago

Agree with willdonovan. I find the ability to observe, test and record one of the most refreshing things about working in user experience research as distinct from market research. It's a shame that some market researchers fixate on asking people what they do, rather than observing, when they want to predict future behaviour

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7 years ago

No issue with behavioural economics. However, overstating the case with claims "know that what they tell you will have no validity at all." is so universal, so absolute as to weaken the case. Is BASES doing badly turnover-wise? I would also be keen to hear the view on effective preditictive techniques - observational techniques look at the present. It wouldn't need to take 45 minutes though.

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