Everyone lies – How to overcome it

This is the first Mindlab interview in a series of three with the renowned author and leading expert in consumer behaviour, Philip Graves.

Philip started his career as a market research manager. He struggled to understand why, frequently, the answers consumers gave in research didn’t tally with other business metrics or operators’ experiences.

“The more I started to venture into the space,” he says, “the more it became evident that people with operational knowledge didn’t accept traditional market research results. They were stuck using the method because it was seen to reveal the all-important ‘voice of the consumer’.

“In addition, there was little evidence to support the assertion that people understood themselves. If you have a problem as a human being and you want help, you go through a process of psychoanalysis because it’s almost impossible to understand how you interact with the world around you in an objective way. It struck me as odd that when it came to market research, we broadly assumed that people knew themselves and could represent their thoughts and actions accurately.”

Frustrated, he looked deeper into the issue of why humans behave the way they do. “The more I dug into it,” Philip continues, “the more it became clear to me that market research, in the sense of asking people questions and trusting the answers, was wishful thinking. People have what psychologists call an ‘unconscious mind’ because we have no direct route to it. If we have no access to it, we can’t report its involvement in our thoughts and feelings when we are asked what we think. What people say is what they think they think, which isn’t the same thing at all.

“We’ve got these beautiful psychological mechanisms that enable us to invent a narrative that makes us feel OK about the world. I could understand why we were asking questions of consumers: we like the idea that we understand ourselves and so it feels right that other people do too. Unfortunately, we’re deluding ourselves and it soon became clear to me that there were better ways of doing things.”

Now, with two decades of experience helping businesses and governments understand people better and as the author of business bestseller Consumer.ology, Philip uses these early realisations when setting up each piece of new research: “My starting point for every project is that people will want to lie to me. I have to make sure that my work goes beyond the way that they want to present things.”

So, Philip, how can businesses do this and overcome the fact that, well, humans are all liars?

“In an ideal world, you would conduct a live trial or, better still, a number of live trials. You would put products and ideas out in the real world and see what happened because that’s how to get an undeniable behavioural response. Of course, that’s not easy to do and it’s almost impossible in many organisations today.”

“We are always compromising in research. Pragmatically, it’s about saying: ‘What are the proxies and tools that will create the most accurate picture?’”

“I recommend that when designing or commissioning research, you ensure it is psychologically valid by using a set of criteria called AFECT U“:

A: Will your research analyse behaviour?

What people do, particularly what they have just done, is fundamentally a truth. You might not know why it’s happened, but it’s real. Do everything you can to identify this and make sure you understand it or, at least, have hypotheses about why it is the way it is.

F: What frame of mind are participants in?

If you’re buying a drink because you’re tired and thirsty, the choices you make will be a consequence of that mindset. Ensure your participants are thinking in the way they would be when making purchase decisions.

E: What is the environment?

We know people are influenced considerably at the unconscious level by what is around them – smells, sounds, the information present, nearby competitors and so on. Recreate the appropriate environment.

C: Is the focus of your research covert?

As soon as your attention is directed towards something, it changes the way you think about it. Be careful of revealing what you are researching.

T: Is the timeframe appropriate?

We make a quick, instinctive decision about buying a packet of loo roll. If you spend an hour talking to a respondent about loo roll, you can be reasonably certain the things they say are not referenced in that split second they spend at the fixture.

U: What can you measure in the unconscious mind?

What we associate with something when we encounter it and what we pay attention to are governed by unconscious processes; there are ways of measuring what the unconscious is doing that should be considered.

For more insights from Philip, read our other interviews on:

Philip Graves is the author of Consumer.ology: The Truth about Consumers and the Psychology of Shopping. He is the founder of research company Shift Consultancy which, for the last decade, has worked with clients as diverse as Abode and the BBC. Mindlab is proud to have worked with Philip on a number of projects for clients including innocent, Lloyds Bank and Diageo. Philip is also an associate at leading economic consultancy, Frontier Economics, where he specialises in behavioural economics strategy work.

Related posts

Subscribe to the Academy

Sign up for emails from the Mindlab Academy.