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...
One of the subjects that I think should be of interest to all consumer researchers is the law.
Not all that Jerome Vs Willensby in 1869 case law stuff, I can’t see much application for that, not studying the statute books either. I’m talking about evidence, how it’s collected and how much weight can reasonably be attached to it.
Given their importance in the legal process, a lot of work has been done to examine the accuracy of eye-witness testimony. It strikes me that if there were any question over people’s ability to accurately report on an event they witness involving someone else then similar problems may well exist when relying on a person’s ability to accurately report their own experiences.
In fact, given the role of the conscious mind as a post-rationalising device that has no direct access to the unconscious mechanisms that trigger our behaviour, there is reasonable argument to expect self-witnessing to be even less accurate.
So do these studies suggest eye-witnesses are reliable?
In a word, no.
One recent study for the journal Law and Human Behaviour found that false eye witness testimony contributed to more than three quarters of wrongful convictions (that were accurately resolved using DNA evidence).
A recently released study by psychologists at Iowa State University faked a crime in front a group of students and asked them to identify the perpetrator from photographs of five suspects, none of whom was the actual thief. Just 16% of the 200 people interviewed said none of them was guilty. Those who had picked rated their confidence in their selection as, on average, six out of ten.
When the witnesses were told that one of the five had confessed over 90% picked out one of the people from the line up and the average level of confidence increased from 6 to 8.5. Remember, the thief wasn’t any of those pictured.
There are numerous theories about why these inaccuracies occur. One study has found that people focus so heavily on one dramatic or traumatic aspect of a scene (such as the gun in an armed raid) that they don’t really see much of anything else.
Another has found that people have a very limited capacity for retaining information; as little as two pieces of information may be all that is retained from an event in the past.
From my own work, the nature of the questioning process is such that people can be unconsciously appealed to be helpful and to please the person asking the question, as a result they unwittingly (and equally unconsciously) prioritise trying to say something that will satisfy the interpersonal exchange that’s taking place at that moment over a ruthless reappraisal of the past.
This issue is just one of the reasons I’m incredibly wary of relying on consumers’ accounts of their consumer behaviour when I conduct research for clients.
My consumer behaviour company works on the premise that, when it comes to designing consumer research studies, it’s far better to assume customers can’t tell us what they think than to believe that they can or will.