In psychological terms, context is almost everything. Much as we like to think that we know how we will act and react in a given situation, without the richness of...
So here’s the thing.
If I convinced you that crossing the road without looking was a wonderful, amazing, liberating, life-transforming experience, and I mean really convinced you so that you believed it, what would happen?
You would take your first attempt with extreme nervousness, shaking with fear, but you would probably make it across the road just fine.
With your senses heightened you wouldn’t really be using your new-found faith in traversing streets with total disregard for what was passing: no you would heighten your other senses until you were certain it was safe and then over you would go.
Of course, after a while, if I’d done a really good job and kept reinforcing the message, you would start to foster the genuine belief that you didn’t need to look to cross the road. After all, you’ve now got my enthusiastic message – and I’d tell you about how many millions of followers were doing it; you’re own ‘experience’ and, in all likelihood, you would have started to notice other people who didn’t seem to be looking when they cross the road (confirmation bias).
For a while you might have luck on your side too. Most car drivers aren’t looking to run a pedestrian down. They would drive around you or stop their vehicles.
Their anger would surprise you. But you would smile inside, knowing that they simply didn’t have your deeper understanding.
There would, however, almost certainly come a point at which you would get hit by a vehicle. It would hurt, a lot, and you would be extremely confused. But would you abandon your belief that you don’t need to look when crossing the road?
I suspect that you are telling yourself, “Of course I would!” and probably also, “I would never have believed it in the first place.”
The latter is almost certainly true. But why?
You haven’t (I hope) experimented with both techniques.
You believe you should look when you cross the road because it’s been drummed into you as a child. Quite possibly with a good explanation that seems eminently sensible.
But you don’t KNOW for certain because you haven’t personally tested all the alternatives (and, incidentally, please don’t start exploring this theory with road crossing!).
If you really believed in not looking when you crossed the road, you would almost certainly carry on believing it.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s take a less extreme example: Market Research.
In the last week I have listened to or read two discussions on two unrelated surveys.
Survey one explored a number of questions relating to people’s bank accounts. It asked people if they had moved their main account recently and also if they were happy with their bank.
Now, to set the scene: Here in the UK the banks are coming under huge pressure from some consumer groups and government regulators. It’s been noticed that people aren’t switching to get the best deals and the finger of blame is being pointed at the banks for not providing customers with information and for making the process of switching from one bank to another extremely difficult. Recently there was a mass action court case claiming that the charges banks levied were unreasonable.
The survey discovered that 93% of the people who hadn’t changed banks in the past two years (which was 92% of the people interviewed) were “happy” with their banks.
One reporter was “astonished”. They even had a psychologist (sadly not me) to explain why the result might have been so high. She pointed out, very reasonably, that having asked if they had changed banks and stated that they hadn’t, it would have been difficult for them to say they were unhappy. She also pointed out that “happy” is a word that is open to a multitude of interpretations: aren’t they all!
So does this mean they’re happy? Or does this mean the questions have primed them to say they are happy when they otherwise wouldn’t have done?
The answer is both.
The second survey, an internet poll, concerned the strike action of British Airways cabin crew. It asked: “As the world’s highest paid cabin staff, should BA cabin crew go on strike?”
The result was that 97% said “no”.
Is the question fair? It seems extremely leading, doesn’t it. But if the statement about them being the highest paid is true isn’t it reasonable to include it?[One entertaining note on the 3% who said “yes”: there is a suspicion from the IP addresses of respondents that they all came directly from trade union organisations!]
The problem for this survey, and all surveys, is how much information do you give people so that they can tell you their opinion? “Facts” are often not accepted universally as being factual. But if you don’t provide relevant information people might make uniformed opinions that they would revise if they heard the information.
But if we ask “should they strike” and someone says “yes” and then add “should they strike if they are the highest paid” you get another problem. People have just said “yes”, perhaps on principle of a workers right to strike, so some won’t change their answer when the new information arrives.
So perhaps the only logical solution is to ask different people different questions. And to make sure that people only answer only one question so that they aren’t inadvertently primed by any preceding questions.
And what would you conclude from such a set of surveys? That people think different things depending on how much information they have and how you ask them about whatever it is.
Hmmm, not likely to make for a compelling headline in the press, or to give a company massive reassurance about a decision they’re considering.
And yet, despite these surveys producing such extreme responses that weren’t believed by the media commentators reporting them, will they keep going back to market research in a bid to understand what people think on a topic? Of course, they will.
Why? Because we are convinced we know what we think: we simply pose ourselves a question and find out. And it seems entirely logical that other people must know what they think and that we can find that out by asking them.
But it just doesn’t work.
That’s the reason I wrote Consumer.ology.
So, to return to my road-crossing example, don’t be so sure that you would let the first hit by a car transform your beliefs.