OPINION13 February 2017

A post-truth world?

Behavioural science Data analytics Opinion UK

Researchers need to respond to a changing landscape – where facts are not the deciding factor they once were, and emotions now hold increasing sway – says Virginia Monk.

Storytelling book_crop

In November, the Oxford English Dictionary announced that its ‘Word of the Year 2016’ is post-truth (an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief').

We have long seen this coming. From Michael Gove announcing that “people in this country have had enough of experts” to the consistent lying of political candidates (and not only in the US), we are seeing a shift in which feelings, literally, trump facts.

There may be several reasons for this.  We all suffer increasingly from overload, the excess of information that we are all bombarded with daily. The data around how many messages our brains receive is updated constantly. In fact as Zeynep Tufekci assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, and writer for The New York Times says: “Information glut is the new censorship”. Not only is the glut of information growing but traditional news media has been severely eroded and in this brave new social media world everyone can be a publisher. 

Closer to home for us in research and insight, we have long recognised the idea of ‘cognitive ease’ revealed in studies by Daniel Kahneman and others, that humans like to avoid facts because fact would force our brains to work harder, instead we find it easier to react instinctively and without a great deal of consideration.

But where does that leave us as researchers? Have we not spent our lives truth-seeking? Carefully questioning and searching for real ‘answers’, and using that knowledge to inform and shape successful decisions for the good of our clients and society?

The fact is that research has never been about the simple truth. Suggesting that a survey, using one data source and a nationally representative sample of say, 1,000 people, will give us the ‘truth’ is the reason we have seen many pollsters fail epically in recent years. While in the area of consumer research and customer experience, disrupter brands have thrown shade on the concept of the loyal customer and customer satisfaction as a single metric. These days the truth of customer experience is a far more nuanced and complex concept than previously thought. 

However, using several data sources (integrating on line and telephone for example, combining qualitative techniques with big data analysis) and triangulating that with a really good understanding of the context of what we do and the purpose of our study, does help us piece together a more realistic picture.  

It’s just that that picture or insight is not in itself ‘the truth’ or ‘the answer’. This relies on interpretation and a great deal of story-telling to craft a logic and structure. So we work our art on the insight and paint a picture, more like a data artist than a data scientist.

It’s time to forget about being truth tellers and start thinking of ourselves as story tellers.  If we are in a post-truth world, it is our jobs to get as close to the truth as we can through rigorous analysis –and then to package it (‘sell’ it even) in the most compelling and dynamic way. Only through quality story telling can we elevate our truth above the noise. 

Virginia Monk is managing director at Network Research

1 Comment

8 years ago

A very interesting point and one I've heard discussed regarding other matters such as inequality and climate change as well. Anybody interested in this story may want to read 'The Myth Gap' by Alex Evans. It may well be more relevant to campaigners but it would be interested to hear what a researchers view would be.

Like Report