What If They’re Lying?

They are, but the more pressing issue is that you’ve thrown buckets of money at a process that has turned out to be riddled with flaws. The logical response is to stop throwing good money after bad. The human response is to ignore the constellation of obvious failings and carry on because being the bearer of bad news is always a bit thorny. Best to continue spending millions on face-to-face market research and surveys only to prove that the human mind is baffling even to those who possess one — less charitably, everyone is lying.

They may not know they’re full of it. To quote the fictional George Costanza, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Face to face market research routinely fails to take into account how little the consumer knows his or herself. We want to think we behave rationally, that we can stick to our New Year’s resolution, and aren’t guided — almost completely — by trying to outguess the opinions of those around us. In group research, human conformity means that if you collect a dozen people, you don’t get a dozen opinions, but a fair measure of the star power of the strongest personality in the room.

Anonymous surveys are generally better, but have their own blind spots: conventional market research routinely fails to take into account what behavioral economist George Loewenstien called this the “Hot-Cold Empathy Gap.” Say someone tells you there is cake in the office break-room an hour after lunch. In this “cold” state, you might find it easy to stick to the diet. Later, you are hungry, into an interesting glass of wine and there are great smells filling the house, you are in a “hot” state and your diet might be DOA for the evening. Basically, data collected in a cold state fails to appreciate behavior in a hot one. It’s not that we don’t want to stick to our guns, and we certainly think that we can. We’re just wrong.

Jonathan Haidt describes the conscious and unconscious minds as a Rider and an Elephant. The puny rider gives commands that are, in general, followed by the elephant. Based on this, the rider assumes that he is calling the shots. In truth is that should the elephant get uncomfortably hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, spooked, tired, full bowels or randy, it’s gonna do what it’s gonna do. The rider just holds on and comes up with a plausible explanation for whatever happens next. When people talk about their habits and preferences, they generally offer rationales for their behavior rather than explanations. Which is not the sort of insight you glean from accosting strangers at the mall.

Edward Snowden’s NSA monkey shines may have effectively creeped the world out, but it has hardly stopped us from willingly leaving our behavioral breadcrumbs all over the Internet. Somewhere on the surface of the brain, the hapless rider probably knows that what he is getting up to online is being recorded. Yet to judge from the fact that the most watched thing online are embarrassing things that no one will admit to actually consuming — porn, a skiing cat juggling lemons or Facebook — the elephant either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Despite all the reasons the rider thinks up to stay off line… here we are.

Granted, the opportunities for abuse of all this behavioral data are a big as cyberspace and, well, awful. The silver lining to the big data cloud is that these insights can shed light onto human behavior that the riders find so hard to articulate, by simply watching what the elephant does when it thinks it’s alone. If nothing else, there is the opportunity to understand ourselves in a way never before possible.

Civilization has evolved fairly cleverly to address our physical needs. In the next advance we can design an environment to fit our psyches. Ergonomically designed furniture (when the designer doesn’t get too clever) is more comfortable because it was designed with the human body in mind. Big Data, for the first time, allows not just ergonomically products, but services as well.

The implications at the DMV alone is worth the price of admission.