People aren’t desperately honest creatures.  Through no fault of our own we’re victims of the way our brains have evolved; it’s wise not to take the things people claim at face value.

Among the many issues affecting market research the quality of respondent recruitment is reasonably frequently debated.  It’s not something I got into in Consumer.ology mostly because even when you recruit the “right” people, asking them questions throws up a whole world of other issues.  

However, over the last couple of days I’ve had a fascinating insight into the recruitment process and can, at no charge to the market research industry, offer them a high quality recruitment tool. 

I was contacted by a television network who wanted to interview me about a story that has been in the news regularly over the past few weeks; the cost of filling your car with petrol (or diesel).  Prices have risen substantially over the past few weeks and since January 2009 the cost of filling your car has increased by almost 50%.

The television network wanted to talk to me about consumer behaviour, they also wanted to interview someone who had changed their driving behaviour as a result of the soaring prices.

Having heard lots of people complaining and discussing the issue, not to mention talking about what they were going to do differently – let’s face it, it hurts to refuel your car these days – I thought it would be easy to find someone who would talk to a journalist about the changes they were making.

So I sent out an email to a hundred or so people locally; people encompassing a wide socio-economic spectrum.  The researcher working on the programme contacted various other people and organisations to find someone.

The response?  Not one person was willing to stand in front of a camera and explain how their behaviour had changed.

Now, of course, not everyone likes the idea of being on television, but given the concern in the media about this issue it would be easy to presume that people are doing something differently.  Then again, the story “Petrol prices are skyrocketing, but people are still buying it like usual” wouldn’t be much of an attention-grabber, would it?

Talk, as they say, is cheap.  Airing your anxieties, thoughts and feelings is pretty much an everyday occurence.  But actually accounting for your behaviour, and feeling that you might be held to account for your behaviour, is quite a different matter.  [This is one of the reasons that when I do ask questions I use interview techniques that don’t allow people to talk about their thoughts and feelings.]

With the jury of your peers in the pub, who see you on TV talking about the fact that you now “cycle a lot more” or “take the bus instead of the car” or “can’t afford to drive”, there is someone on hand to poke you in the side and laugh at your fanciful exaggerations (or at least you are afraid that there might be).

I suspect that the conscious introspection triggered by realising that they would be accountable for their answers was at least a contributory factor in people’s unwillingness to speak to the press.

So, when it comes to market research recruitment you should probably recruit people on the basis that their responses will be broadcast to the nation, that way you can be more confident there’s some substance behind their claims.

Talk is cheap, research talk is even cheaper, but claiming you’ve done things you haven’t in front of your mates can be expensive.

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