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    « #HRTechConf (un)session Preview - Social Tools in the Organization | Main | Stop Making Decisions »

    If you want to know something, don't bother asking

    DISCLAIMER: I am at the HR Technology Conference this week, and that combined with the lingering hangover-but-in-a-good-way effects from the HRevolution event held yesterday, (if you ever see Mike Carden again, ask him about how many times you should rub your eyes to make them feel better, he will know what you mean), the posts this week may be even shallower and offbeat than usual.  Or they might simply uphold the blog's tradition of shallowness, we will see.Cy Twombly - Untitled

    While waiting for a morning session to kick off, I read this piece, 'Catchy Headlines, Bogus Data' on the Neuromarketing blog. Why I am reading a blog on neuromarketing in the first place is another question entirely.  But in the piece, the author points out the fallacies in the findings of a recent study about online content consumption habits conducted by Harris Interactive. In the study, researchers concluded that readers were attracted to online content the most by 'catchy headlines', 54%, and 'interesting picturers', 44%, the obvious conclusion for marketers and others interested in increasing the attractiveness of their online content would be to write catchier headlines and include more pictures.

    But the problem with these conclusions, at least according to Neuromarketing, is that the Harris survey only asked people what they feel would be more likely to influence their decision to read a piece of content, not what actual actions they take with respect to online content.

    From the Neuromarketing piece:

    I have no doubt that the above data, gathered from over 2,300 survey participants, was collected and analyzed using the best practices for such research.

    There’s only one problem. This lovely, detailed data is bogus, despite the large sample size and low calculated margin of error.

    What’s wrong with this data? It’s simple. Asking people why they do things is terribly unreliable. Our behavior as humans is influenced by many, many factors, most of which aren’t conscious or rational.

    Asking people why they do things is terribly unreliable.

    Let's have that sink in for a second. For me, it at least has direct relevance to why it seems like I can't get a straight answer out of my 11-year old sometimes.

    Still not convinced that asking is often not the best way to determine why people behave the way they do? How about this then, also from the Neuromarketing piece:

    Split-brain research as shown that people have a remarkable ability to fabricate explanations for their actions that seem logical but have no basis in reality.


    Asking people what they would be likely to do given a set of parameters is often an inherently flawed way to conduct research or to make decisions about what options to present the people you are trying to reach. And then, after they have taken an action, asking them to report why they did indeed take that action is also subject to humans' pesky tendency to rationalize and misremember.

    What to do about this as a HR/Talent pro that needs to better understand people and their actions and motivations?

    Trust what people do, less about why they say they did it, and discount significantly what people say they might do in the future.

    Also prepare with even more earnestness for the day when the robots take over all our jobs.

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    Reader Comments (2)

    That also is true for software design and usability. Asking people what they want the software to do will result in bogus answers. Sitting down and watching them use software, and watching them do their jobs, gives real answers to what the user actually wants software to do for them.

    October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Brogee

    Jennifer - excellent point and one that is pretty easy to overlook since often the people who build software have not actually been in the roles of the people that will use the software. Thanks!

    October 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterSteve

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