Be honest, how many of you thought you would ever read that as a headline?

As someone who has worked in and around what is generally known as “market research” for twenty years I was always slightly disappointed that I didn’t have a job that might be called upon dramatically.

“Help!!! Is there a market researcher on the plane?” Is not a phrase I ever expected to hear.

As a brief aside, I was once able to put my consumer behaviour skills to good use with strangers: I was taking a train with a friend and a number had been cancelled, resulting in the sorts of over-crowding that’s not permitted for the transportation of any other mammal.

We’d failed to get on two trains and watched two passengers almost come to blows as one attempted to compress an over-crowded carriage.

When the third train arrived we saw a tiny space, possibly only an illusion based on sixty people inhaling simultaneously, but decided we had to go for it.  Just then two people started fighting their way OFF the train that we wanted to get on.  They were at their intended station and were struggling to get through the packed groups of people between their place and the train doors.

As they made it through they were defiantly angry at the people they felt were blocking their route – in fact they just had no space to move into to get out of their way, and no one was planning on stepping off this train that they had worked so hard to get on to.

My friend and I, emboldened by a sense of mathematical justice – two people had now got off the train, their hadto be room for two more – pushed into the crowd.  Whilst the people we were now pressed against weren’t exactly happy about it, they also had seen the people get off and were, I suspect, torn between personal discomfort and resignation at the fact we were only re-balancing a distasteful equation.

After my friend broke the silence with a cheery “Hello” a conversation sprang up in our area of the carriage – an extraordinarily rare event on any form of London public transport.  After laughing about the fact that a train operator wouldn’t think to have drivers for all the trains they were operating the conversation turned to contrasting the general bonhomie of my friend and I with the couple who had only moments earlier escaped the packed carriage: why, one of my travelling companions asked, had they been unhappy to leave a crowded train whilst we were happy to be on it.

“Ah ah,” I said, pleased that my consumer psychology skills were at last coming in handy in an impromptu situation, “it’s the psychology of loss aversion!  The people getting off the train were anxious about losing out because they want to get home by getting off the train.  My friend and  I were afraid we would lose out by not getting onto a train and not getting home.  So the same psychological mechanism that makes us happy makes them unhappy because of the context.”

So, personally, I’ve been slightly useful but not saved any lives.  Which brings me back to the title of this blog: Market Research Saved My Life!  Has that happened?  Could it happen?  What would you spend on it if it could?

I’ll tell you next time!

Philip Graves


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