Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Of strawberry jams and the anomalous outcomes in research

If I were to ask you to name three Hollywood action movies that you liked in recent months, your spontaneous answer might be - Inception, Expendables and Salt - in that order. Now if I were to ask you as to why you prefer one film over the other with a detailed questionnaire, your (spontaneous) ranking is likely to be reversed with Salt now becoming your most liked film.
Hard to believe? But it is true.  

Jonah Lehrer, renowned psychologist and author, in this wonderful article (courtesy via Bobulate) talks about the findings of a path-breaking study that was undertaken using various brands of strawberry jam. According to him, thinking too much causes us to focus on variables that do not matter. 

In the research, the respondents could easily pick the brand of strawberry jam that gave them the most pleasure.  

When researchers added extra analysis to the study, asking participants to explain the why of their jam preference and justify their decisions, the “extra analysis seriously warped their jam judgment” – the really lousy jam won.

Why is this so? 

“Thinking too much” about strawberry jam causes us to focus on all sorts of variables that don’t actually matter. Instead of just listening to our instinctive preferences, we start searching for reasons to prefer one jam over another. 

The researchers also showed that the same effect interferes with our choice of posters, jelly beans, cars, IKEA couches and apartments. We assume that more rational analysis leads to better choices but, in many instances, that assumption is exactly backwards. 

These studies represent an important re-evaluation of the human reasoning process. Instead of celebrating our analytical powers, these experiments document our foibles and flaws. 

The implication of this study on the research we do for brands can be profound. We think respondents behave like scientists providing well analyzed, rational answers on the choices they make. It is far from the truth. Respondents are people first, like you and me. Spontaneity and irrationality rules but we do not want to admit that. Now, it stands to reason why the best of ideas are toast in research and why mediocrity triumphs most of the times. Little wonder that over 80% (or is it 90%) of product launches and campaigns fail in the marketplace.

Therefore the most successful marketers and business leaders, according to Dave Trott, are the ones who dare to take the intuitive leap ignoring research and its anomalies. This is best exemplified by this quote from the legendary Akio Morita: 

“The biggest assistance I had, in growing Sony to a worldwide brand, was the total failure of nerve on the part of western businessmen to move without research.” 

Need I say more?

(Dilbert courtesy via)

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