Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Case Against "Why" - Part 2

My last post was about how market researchers’ constant questioning of respondents on why they do things can provide misleading responses.

By coincidence, I have read two experiments that show us just how much of a mistake it can be.

These experiments by Tim Wilson, professor of psychology at University of Virginia show how asking people to focus on why they do something actually causes them to make choices that do not reflect their true preference.

He conducted two experiments. In one he asked students to rate different brands of jam in terms of their preference. One group was asked to do so and list the reasons, the other was not asked to list the reasons.

The outcome of the experiment is described here as follows:

Wilson and Schooler found that subjects in the control group, who had not been required to list reasons for their opinions about the jams, gave evaluations that were very close to those given by the trained experts. Both the subjects and the experts agreed on which jams were best, and which were worst. The subjects in the experimental group, who had been required to explain their preferences, subsequently evaluated the jams in line with the reasons they gave …Their evaluations, however, did not correspond well with the evaluations of the experts. The jam the experts had rated as the best and the jam the experts rated the worst were both regarded by the experimental subjects as being rather mediocre.

Basically, those who were asked ‘why’ had to engage their pre-frontal cortex, come up with ‘reasons’ and align their stated preference to those reasons. When they did this they picked the worst jam.

The second experiment concerned posters. Students were asked to choose from a range of posters that they could keep – some of famous paintings others photographs of animals. Again, they were split into two groups. One group had to give reasons and the other did not. The group that had to give reasons was much less likely to select the paintings. They tended to select cute animals. And when the two groups were re-contacted a few weeks after the experiment, that group was far less satisfied with their choice.

The conclusion is summed up here:

When people think about reasons, they appear to focus on attributes of the stimulus that are easy to verbalize and seem like plausible reasons but may not be important causes of their initial evaluations. When these attributes imply a new evaluation of the stimulus, people change their attitudes and base their choices on these new attitudes. Over time, however, people's initial evaluation of the stimulus seems to return, and they come to regret choices based on the new attitudes.

These experiments teach us a lot about how to conduct and how to evaluate market research. Firstly, it supports the notion that ‘first view’ responses to product concepts and brand preference questions are the only valid ones. But it also brings into question all of the responses from focus groups and questionnaires after that ‘first view’. By asking respondents to utilize their ‘reason’ are we in fact making them state preferences that do not reflect reality? Ones that could in fact be the opposite?

We know from neuroscience that many purchase decisions use very little ‘reason’ as the pre-frontal cortex is hardly active. So when we encourage respondents to use it by asking ‘why’ we could indeed me encouraging responses that are nonsense – not just in terms of the reasons that are given but the actual preference to which those reasons allegedly lead.

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