Bias and Context

In order to do the best job possible, Market researchers need to be aware of their own biases which arise out of their own context. That sounds like so obvious- so why am I writing about something so basic?

In the past few months I have gotten new insight into my biases and how my context influences my interpretation in several ways. Being a seminary student and learning about how the context of the New Testament influenced what was written was one eye opener among many others in the academic setting. But I have also been reading some popular books that opened my eyes that seem applicable to market research.

Daniel Kahneman’s summary of the field of behavioral psychology Thinking, Fast and Slow is about the biases we humans have in our thinking. It’s worth reading from two different perspectives in respect to market researcher – how we do market research (which I will address in a later post) and how we analyze and interpret results. One of the ideas I took away from this book is that like all other human beings, we market researchers take shortcuts in how we analyze things that then influence our decisions. Kahneman makes the point that we need to do that- we couldn’t live our lives as we do if we didn’t “think fast” in most of our lives. But we need to recognize what we are doing and reexamine it occasionally. I love his example on page 112 of how he came to recognize that even he was guilty of using a statistical rule of thumb instead of going through the calculations, which resulted in his experiments failing more often than they might have done if they had been powered correctly. How often do we do that kind of thing in our field? I suspect more than we realize.
The second book that I am reading that has helped me see my biases is Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker. This entire book uses data to counteract our ingrained belief that violence has been getting worse. His evidence is impressive but you can tell from his comments he believes he is fighting an uphill battle. How often do we face a similar situation? He references Kahneman’s work several times but perhaps he would have had more success if he tried to think about how to apply Kahneman’s principles to change people’s minds. I think there’s a wealth of opportunity in this new field of psychology to affect both how we both do research and then persuade people that we are right.

But back to market research. How can we market researchers get out of our own viewpoint so that we understand our own biases? And how do we help our marketing colleagues do the same? To do that it’s is crucial to take on another person’s point of view, to empathize with them. I remember a marketer and a moderator at a focus group on a diet product making fun of the respondent’s anguish about losing weight in the back room. At the time, I was struck by how disrespectful that was. Importantly, I think their judgment kept them inside their own skin and put up a wall between them and the respondent. Thus they lost an opportunity to gain insight into the target audience – what about the respondents made them so anguished that the initial reaction of observers was that they were ridiculous? That is where the power of both marketing and market research is.

This is one reason why I think attending focus groups is so important- when we rely on vendors to provide us with the report and/or rely on videoconferencing (which face it, practically no one really watches), we lose an opportunity to get inside respondents heads, to empathize with them. Years ago, Dick Fordyce of J&J felt focus group attendance was so important that he set a boundary that his group would not do qualitative research unless Product Management would commit to attend. The research would be cancelled if they didn’t show up. Given the concern about travel costs and pressure on people’s schedules, that sounds ludicrous today but I think there is a lesson here.

But I also think that we can set up ground rules so that we get even more out of focus group attendance. Some high end qual groups have special tasks for back room respondents to complete – I would suggest that any way to help respondents pay attention and to get inside respondents’ heads would be a good thing. When I was at Ogilvy, we used to write before and after statements as part of the strategy documents– making sure that we understood how a typical respondent thought about the product or category now. What if we gave assignments to focus group attenders to take the point of view of a certain respondent and write a 3 sentence paragraph from their point of view at the end of each group? I am sure there are lots of ways to accomplish focus group attendee engagement and identification with respondents; readers please chime in with ideas.

For those folks who absolutely can’t be there, video and audio do have a role. The right video or audio clips are very powerful – for those of you who don’t know, there are now businesses of creating clips for presentations. I think one of the powers of ethnographic research is to get people into the viewpoint of their customers – which has perhaps become even more important as people travel less.

In my New Testament class, we got inside people’s heads by researching other people’s context and their interpretations of a particular Bible verse. It was eye opening to see how context affects interpretation. What if a Market Researcher had to state our own context and how they thought it might affect interpretation of the data?

Finally, think about other ways to get outside your own viewpoint. Reading books is one (especially books that might challenge you), so are outside activities. One outside activity that we might not think about is volunteering. Volunteerism is good in a lot of ways- it makes us grateful for what we have and does provide needed services if done right. If you work directly with people who need help, it may have a side benefit of taking you out of your own viewpoint for a while. I know serving in a soup kitchen opened my group’s minds as to what homeless people face in their day to day life.

Readers: what benefits do you see of getting outside of our viewpoints? Do you do it? How? Any books you can recommend or techniques?


One response to “Bias and Context

  1. This might seem obvious, but the point of hiring an outside vendor to conduct market research (as an unbiased third-party) is how I normally view my own role as a consultant.

    However, I admit that we each bring our own biases to each project we conduct… There are often times when I leave an interview room as the moderator and enter the observation room to discuss what was just heard and find vast differences of opinion among a group of clients who supposedly just listed to the same respondent!

    Dick Vanderveer recently wrote in his own blog ( about how his level of experience in the industry changed his perspective, which I can relate to – as he noted that when you are young and early in your career all is “new” but as you gain experience and perspective your viewpoint shifts. At the same time, he notes that the world is not static (e.g., managed care influences, standards for medical practice change, etc.).

    For different perspective, I also find reading to be a good instigator of new ideas and perspective. I like to read about topics outside of market research, as I often find relevant learnings from unexpected places.

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