The Unbearable Madness of Crowds

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If you were to compile a list of the smartest people of all time, Sir Isaac Newton would undoubtedly be prominent amongst the candidates. Carl Sagan described him as “perhaps the greatest scientific genius who ever lived” and even Einstein (who might make the list on his own merits) called him “a shining spirit” responsible for “a turning point in the world’s intellectual development”. Those are some accolades, but they seem fitting given Newton changed the way we think about the universe, helped explain gravity, and has a good claim to inventing calculus. But Newton is interesting to those of us in market research for a very different reason. Despite his brilliance with numbers and cause-and-effect relationships, Newton lost a fortune investing in the South Seas Company (subsequently, but too late for Newton, known as ‘The South Seas Bubble’). The losses were catastrophic for Newton, wiping out his life savings. For the rest of his life, Newton forbade anyone to speak the words ‘South Sea’ around him. Reflecting on his loss, Newton famously said “I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people”.

“I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people” – Isaac Newton

As far as mottos for the market research industry go, that seems to me as good as any. We’ve come a long way since 1720 but – in many ways – we are little better at understanding ‘the madness of crowds’ than Newton was. What we are much better at is understanding the limitations of our models and our measurement tools. Good practice today is about combining viewpoints and methods – and boiling it all up with a pinch of methodological modesty. And we do this because, as Bob Hoffman (of Ad Contrarian fame) once noted, there are three main problems with consumer research: people don’t know what they really think, they don’t say what they really mean, and they don’t really mean what they do say. That might sound like an indictment of our industry, but I think it presents a wonderful opportunity to grapple with the complexity of human behaviour.

Indeed, in the 30 years I’ve been working in research, it’s hard to remember a more exciting time to be a researcher. Many of the old certainties about measurement are crumbling, many of our tools no longer have the reach they used to, and our fundamental assumptions about human behaviour are being upturned. It’s the last of these that excites me the most because what it means is that, as an industry, we are rediscovering that market research is first and foremost a social science. This means we can tap into all those subjects that deal with human behaviour in its social and cultural setting. This includes mainstream subjects such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, and economics. But it also includes fascinating new areas of study like social neuroscience, behavioural economics, and human evolutionary biology. My job title here at Research First is ‘Head of Insight’ but I’ve been lobbying to have it changed to ‘Chief Social Scientist’ for this very reason.

In the 30 years I’ve been working in research, it’s hard to remember a more exciting time to be a researcher

It’s also important to note that these ideas from the social sciences shouldn’t just shape the work we do with our clients but should also inform the way we approach our own practice. For instance, while it feels like you’re reasoning your way through your life, that’s rarely the case. Instead, all our brains are wired to take shortcuts, to be influenced by how things are framed, and profoundly shaped by what others are doing. When we talk about knowing something, we really mean experiencing what the neurologist Robert Burton called a “feeling of knowing”. The challenge for all of us is to recognise this distinction, and to remember that we often respond to situations out of habit, unaware that habits have histories. But most of all, as Newton himself noted, we need to keep reminding ourselves that when it comes to human beings “what we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean”.

This article originally appeared in the InterVIEW Q3 October 2018 

The Unbearable Madness of Crowds

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