Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

Ask Me A Question, I’ll Give You An Answer

There’s a classic sketch from Allen Funt’s 1970s television show, “Candid Camera,” that follows a couple of researchers as they ask respondents questions about popular shows, including one called “Space Doctor.” In the clip, respondents answer questions about different aspects of the show that they like or dislike. Respondents are even seen scoffing at the researchers when they explain they haven’t seen the show themselves. At the end of the clip it’s revealed that the show “Space Doctor” never existed. It’s completely fictitious. So what caused the respondents in this gag to answer with such conviction that they had seen and liked the show? Are they are all dirty, filthy, rotten liars? Did they look the interviewer square in the eye and knowingly make it all up in order to deceive them?

We often have clients come to us feeling frustrated because consumers’ real life behavior in the marketplace is nothing like what consumers told them they would do “in the lab.” While I could claim this is just because people don’t know what they want, that would make me the liar because consumers DO know what they want…they just don’t always know how to tell us.

When we ask consumers what they want, we often fall into the trap that the “Space Doctor” clip demonstrates so clearly: when you ask someone a direct question, they’re invariably going to provide you with an answer. However, those answers are not always representative of the truth. Why is this?

Protect This House!

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sheds a little light on this phenomenon by explaining that it’s all about a basic survival mechanism. “Our brains contain a kind of mental toolbox selected over millions of years of evolution to help our ancestors survive and reproduce in challenging environments,” D’Amasio states. Our brains are built for our protection. When we feel a threat, the brain goes into survival mode, seeking to avoid any form of punishment. While the essence of survival has changed over time, and we don’t necessarily feel the daily pressures of living or dying, we still have a need for social survival and the protection of our identity.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, our life experiences have taught us to associate providing correct answers with gaining rewards, and giving incorrect ones or not knowing the answers with receiving punishment. When we are posed a direct question, our brains are conditioned to provide appropriate responses, so we go into “what’s the right answer” mode. Before consumers can examine their own feelings deeply enough to realize they don’t know an answer, their hard-wired brains have already begun to make something up.

95% of Thinking Takes Place In the Unconscious

The key to understanding this phenomenon is the fact that the brain is often working without our conscious knowledge or control. Nearly 95% of thought and learning occurs in the unconscious mind, so a person is not overtly aware of all the emotions and feelings that are driving their behaviors. Malcolm Gladwell warns of this in his book Blink, “while people are very willing and very good at volunteering information explaining their actions, those explanations, particularly when it comes to the kinds of spontaneous opinions and decisions that arise out of the unconscious, aren’t necessarily correct.”

Direct Lines of Questioning

So if all of this is happening in a consumer’s mind, we must be very conscious of the non-conscious when we ask consumers (and other respondents) questions so as not to prime them into giving responses that might not be true. In our beloved “Space Doctor” example these are the types of questions that were asked:
• What do you like about “Space Doctor?”
• Did you like the one where they got stuck on the moon or did you like the one about the wedding on Venus?
• “Space Doctor” is one of your favorite shows, right?”
• Did you like the space baby?

All of these direct questions carry within them the implication that they have a right or wrong answer. None of the respondents wanted to come across as dumb or uninformed, so their brains devised responses that made them believe they had actually seen the show.

Understanding the unconscious workings of the brain is critical because, as you can see, simple slips in question construction and technique can prime respondents and lead us away from gaining true insight. People are naturally motivated to look for cues to tell them how to answer questions in appropriate ways. Everything from a gesture, a look, or a word choice will be interpreted non-consciously and may affect respondents’ replies.

Ask Me No Questions, I’ll Tell You No Lies.

Beware: priming is real. It’s a threat to all research, and the use of direct questioning can seldom overcome this phenomenon. At Brandtrust, we continually strive to avoid priming in our research and uncover respondents’ non-conscious motivators. What are your consumers telling you? What is important to them? Paradoxically, it’s often when we stop questioning that they find a way to tell us.

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