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Should Marketers Trust Consumer Self-Reports?

Marketers should think twice about trusting data from focus groups.

I am part of a group of social psychologists who examine the connection between people's self-stated spending habits and values—what people say they will buy and why—and their happiness.

However, I have some friends over at TipTap Lab who warn that marketers should think twice about trusting data from focus groups and consumer self-reports. Why is that?

We are constantly finding ways to layer plausible explanations onto decisions we make throughout the course of our everyday lives. While these explanations allow us to weave a coherent story, often times the true reason for why we make a decision is obscured from our conscious awareness. Examples of the disconnect are abundant. This sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live shows people on the street giving an explanation of why they prefer the Affordable Care Act to Obamacare (two names for the same bill). In reality, the people were just choosing the option that most closely aligned with their pre-existing party affiliation (without having any informed knowledge of the content of the bill). This is just one exaggerated example of the myths we create to justify our daily decisions.

The same disconnect often occurs when we make purchasing choices. You may have even caught yourself in the act of rationalizing a purchasing decision (“I really needed a pair of red heels to match that blazer I bought last month”) when in reality you have no idea why you made that choice. A more likely explanation for your decision to purchase those red heels is that you were being impulsive or were otherwise influenced by the store environment (e.g., store employee, promotion). If you ever notice yourself coming up with some reasonable explanation for your purchasing decision on the fly, it’s likely you’ve just caught a strange psychological mechanism in the act (a storytelling system in the mind called the confabulator, the left-brain interpreter, or the press secretary of the mind). It is precisely because of this psychological phenomenon that marketers (and researchers more broadly) should be concerned with the ability of humans to accurately report why they purchase the things they do.

Michael Gazzaniga and colleagues stumbled upon the confabulator by accident in their research in the mid-70s. They were studying patients with split-brain disorder, a condition in which the communication channel between the left and right hemispheres of the brain is severed. The researchers conducted a number of visual decision making tasks on the patients in order to understand how the processes in each hemisphere may differ. They discovered a curious phenomenon in which the left hemisphere, when presented with images the right hemisphere selected, was able to create a rationale for why the right hemisphere selected the image it did. The explanations were plausible, yet completely made up because the left hemisphere had no access to the processes of the right hemisphere! The researchers concluded the left hemisphere has the amazing ability to create the illusion of sense and order out of the chaos that is our everyday decision making. Further research has demonstrated similar effects in many different ways, and as odd as it may seem, there is now substantial convergent evidence we all interpret our worlds using this weird psychological mechanism. Even we can’t tell the difference between the truth and the stories our confabulator systems spin! Read here for a more detailed explanation of the confabulator and it’s experimental underpinnings.

Getting back to consumer decision-making, marketers who have any experience trying to understand purchasing behavior know that consumers’ self-reports, such as those obtained through surveys and focus groups, cannot be trusted. A common refrain of marketers is that “buyers are liars.” This statement is only partially true. Buyers are (for the most part) unintentional liars. That is, they are poorly informed storytellers. And even worse, because of the way the human mind is wired, they aren’t even aware they don’t know why they do what they do, and buy into the stories their confabulator spins. In future blog posts we will expand upon this insight and discuss how understanding the psychological mechanisms behind consumer behavior and self-reports can be used to circumvent this funny little hobgoblin. To find out more about the true motivations behind consumer behavior, you can check out our webinar here.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are learning about what might influence how you think about and spend your money. Do you want to know about your true motivations behind what you are buying? Just Login or Register and then take our Implicit Buying Motives Study. You might then try the Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, which measures the extent to which the values of your family and friends influence your own behavior. Along the way, we think you’ll find out a bit more about why you buy and what makes you happy.

This blog was written by Kyle Thomas, VIP of research at TipTap lab and a Ph.D. candidate, Evolutionary Social Psychology, at Harvard University.

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