Considering the collective opinion

Life is not logical. The whole is different to the sum of its parts.

Yet the majority of quantitative research is not structured to reflect this.

It assumes that survey respondents are considered and rational individuals, able to make an informed choice when asked to consider a series of options, or able to adequately communicate their thoughts, opinions or attitudes.

Yet, in most instances this isn’t true

  • The school of behavioural science, currently championed by Rory Sutherland at the IPA, portrays humans as mannequins to be manipulated by an invisible hand, or nudged to predictably irrational conclusions
  • Those who believe Google makes us stupid talk about the rise of distributed memory. We are now more wired to remember a wide range of data superficially, rather than a depth of informed knowledge
  • Our hectic lives preclude a degree of considered choice on non-special occasions, so we blink, “thin-slice” and make gut reactions
  • The paradox of choice and analysis paralysis mean we prefer to make choices on a more limited number of options than are perhaps available – this screening process is by no means optimal
  • The individual is not an island, but part of a community

This latter point in particular has been on my mind recently.

There have been attempts to engineer research by identifying influentials or mavens (link is a pdf) but I’m not aware of any technique that satisfactorily conveys the intertwining impact that our personal relationships and media exposure have on our thoughts and actions.

We might follow Herd behaviour. So, if the media constantly mentions Facebook, it leads people to try it. And if Academy Members hear that the Hurt Locker is the favourite to win best film, then they will vote for it.

But then there doesn’t appear to be a guarantee that this prophecy is self-fulfilling. A Labour victory at the 1992 election was seen as a foregone conclusion, yet people stayed at home or kept their Conservative biases hidden until the day of polling. And the hype surrounding Second Life didn’t convert us all to living vicariously through an online avatar.

So why not? Duncan Watts has worked extensively on this. He argues in favour of randomness, where an initial option gains some traction that is in turn exacerbated as people validate it. This makes some intuitive sense – if I am searching on Amazon, I might initially limit my search to the highest rated items, even though those rating them might have highly different needs for the product to my own.

Is it possible to predict which ideas or concepts will eventually succeed? I know Brainjuicer have had some success with their predictive markets, but it appears to be an area open for innovation.

Would we need to run full simulations (either controlled experiments, or computer models) to judge which environmental factors will have the largest influence?

Or would it be possible to infer a “herd multiplier” to frame a concept in the likelihood of it being adopted by a community or the media?

Or could we go back and question people on their expected behaviour in the context of what their actual behaviour was, in order to get them to post-rationalise the differences?

Or, will this always be a problem with quantitative research, and instead we should look to smaller sample groups of people to test how ideas and preferences disseminate and iterate through a group of likeminded people?

I don’t know the answer. But it is certainly something worth thinking about.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28191556@N02/3160824946/

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One Response

  1. …and have you seen the size of the TGI questionnaire?! The thing is absolutely enormous, people must be ticking “box one” all the way through after the first 100 pages

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