Caveat Lector!

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You probably know that advertisements are carefully crafted to influence how you think, feel, or act. But the subtlety of the deception used in ads is often easy to overlook.

For instance, ads for therapeutic products that claim their product ‘may’ prevent, reduce, or slow the signs of a condition are really signalling that they can’t prove any effect (because products that claim healing properties are obliged to
demonstrate those effects scientifically).

But you also need to be on your guard whenever you hear an ad that makes reference to a product being ‘recommended’ by professionals. The problem for consumers here is that ‘recommend’ and ‘prefer’ sound like synonyms, while for advertisers they remain distinct (and, presumably, their assumption is that most people will not notice the difference).

Colgate ran into trouble in the UK for using precisely this technique. They ran ads claiming that “80 per cent of dentists recommend” their toothpaste, but failed to mention that dentists recommended more than one brand of toothpaste. So while it was true that ’80 percent of dentists recommend Colgate’ it was certainly not the case that they prefer Colgate. In fact, it turned out that those dentists were just as likely to recommend a competitor’s product.

In cases like this, it is as important to think about what the ad is not saying as what it does. Jeffrey Schrank’s The Language of Advertising Claims remains one of the best things written about this topic, and is particularly good at identifying the ‘weasel words’ advertisers often use. These include “helps,” “virtually,” “acts,” “can be,” “up to,” “refreshes,” “comforts,” “fights,” “the feel of,” “the look of,” “fortified,” “enriched,” and “strengthened.” The whole point of these is to modify the claim that follows (and, indeed, to empty that claim of any real meaning) but to be subtle enough that most consumers won’t notice them.

Interestingly, we are all familiar with the caution ‘caveat emptor’ (‘let the ‘buyer beware’) but the work of Schrank and others reminds us that we also need ‘caveat lector’ (‘let the reader beware’). Because as H G Wells warned us long before colour television, advertising is a form of legalised lying.

Caveat Lector!

The Secret to Changing Behaviour

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A great deal of our work at Research First is about changing behaviour. But as anyone who works in this field will tell you, getting people to change their behaviour is hard.

For some sense of just how hard it is, think about the last time you tried to change one of your own habits. How are those New Year’s resolutions working out for you? According to one measure, for two-thirds of us those resolutions don’t even make it to February intact. If we struggle to change our own behaviour, how do we hope to encourage others to change theirs?

The answer seems to be ‘by planning what we’ll do when the initial motivation runs out’. Another way to put this is that the secret to effecting lasting change is with what are called implementation intention plans.

As the name suggests, these outline how you plan to implement your intended change. As this article points out, they are if-then plans that spell out in advance how you will strive for a set goal.

These plans are particularly useful for changing health behaviours, and where local councils want to get more people using public transport. The Travel Smart behaviour change approach is built on implementation intention planning. It involves working with households to help them plan their weekly transport use to reduce reliance on private cars. The weekly plans outline clear implementation intentions, as well as what the participants will do if those plans cannot be realised.

Implicit in the success of implementation intention plans is the notion that ‘motivation is over-rated‘. Or, as Chuck Close put it, “inspiration is for amateurs”.

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work” – Chuck Close

Along with planning what to  do once the motivation has run out, implementation intention plans help track progress towards the desired goal. By breaking down larger goals into smaller achievements, and enabling you to measure each one, the plans provide a clear roadmap towards your goal.

In this regard, the plans provide the process. As Deming said in a different context:

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing – W. Edwards Deming

And the best thing about having a process? It means that even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still know what to do next.

The Secret to Changing Behaviour

Build Your Own Time Machine!

Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine

Okay, not a real time machine. Not in the sense of one that will take you from 1985 to 2015 once you hit 88 mph. That kind of time machine is probably impossible. If you’re holding out for wormholes to do it then you’ll be disappointed to hear that the physicists at Caltech, using a partial unification of general relativity with quantum physics, think that:

Any wormhole that allows time travel would collapse as soon as it formed.

But it is possible for you to create a personal time machine in your head. Think of it as a psychological time machine. You can do this because we can all alter how we experience time by the degree of novelty we allow into our lives.

When you experience new things, the experiences seem to take longer. Or as Joshua Foer put it:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.

This explains why time seems to speed up as you age (and seemed to stretch on forever when you were young). Or, as Scientific American put it:

When the passage of time is measured by “firsts” (first kiss, first day of school, first family vacation), the lack of new experiences in adulthood, James morosely argues, causes “the days and weeks [to] smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

This ‘monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it’ rule also contributes to the Return Trip Effect, where journeys home from new places seem to be shorter than the ride out.

All of which has important implications for how we live our lives.

  • To make your weekends last longer, build more novelty into them (new places, new activities).
  • If time seems to be rushing by you, find ways to add novelty to your daily routine.
  • And to make meetings somewhat less miserable, introduce an element of surprise.

As others have noted, the real lesson here is that you get to choose how you want to experience time. And there is a wonderful irony here – if you want to slow down the passage of time, start doing more with it!

 

Build Your Own Time Machine!

Where Is My Jetpack?

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The recent visit of SingularityU to New Zealand and TV1’s What’s Next? show have both sparked debate about what the future holds and what it will mean for all of us. While we at Research First are excited about the opportunities it may bring, we feel honour-bound to re-iterate that no-one really knows what the future will hold.

Not the slick presenters at SingularityU, and certainly not the presenters on TV1 (a point made well here). As always, Bob Hoffman captures this better than most.

“I go to a lot of conferences (hey, it’s a living) and I have to listen to a lot of speakers. It’s pretty easy to know pretty quickly who the bullshit artists are. They’re the ones who are telling us what the future is going to be like and warning us that we’d better be ready for it or we’ll be left behind… If you’re a buffoon with a Powerpoint and a bag full of clichés stay away from the present. Nothing to see here. Head for the future – it’s your happy place”

But Umberto Eco could have been describing all these futurologists when he said:

“while they seem to act as a thermometer, reporting a rise in temperature, they are actually part of the fuel that keeps the furnace going”.

We’ve talked in the past about the work of Philip Tetlock, and we wish the producers at TV1 or SingularityU spent less time watching TED talks and more time reading Tetlock.

But even a better understanding of the past would help temper these debates about the future. People have been making predictions about what the future will hold (and getting them mostly spectacularly wrong) for hundreds of years. Similarly, every age thinks theirs is an age of disruption.

We like the way Scientific American put it when it noted

“futurology has always bounced around between common sense, nonsense and a healthy dose of wishful thinking”.

But we prefer the point John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge made in a different context, when they said

“even if it’s not all bullshit, enough of it is to disqualify the rest”.

Keep that in mind the next time someone drops the word ‘disruption’ into a presentation

Where Is My Jetpack?

Facts Are Stubborn Things

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There really is no polite way to say this: the world is awash with bullshit. We can dress this up in all the ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ packaging we want, but it’s much more useful not to mince our words. After all, one of the golden rules of psychology is that ‘to name it is to tame it’. Working in the world of research and policy, we confront this problem every day. We see it in ‘voodoo polls’ that take on the appearance of science without any of the substance. And we see it in ‘experts’ who clearly have no idea about how little they really know.

Facts may be stubborn things but assertions are clearly more of a push-over. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr put it, “certitude is not the test of certainty”. The key is not to dismiss all research and evidence but to be clear about when you can trust it.

Back in the mid nineties Carl Sagan compiled a ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ that remains a great resource for anyone dealing with claims made from evidence. It also outlines a number of the common rhetorical tricks that get rolled out to shift your attention away from the quality of the research. There is a version of that article on Research First’s website (here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/uploads/The%20Fine%20Art%20of%20Baloney%20Detection.pdf), and we have a shorter, easier to use, checklist version you can use too (here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/uploads/files/users/30375/RF_Research_Ninja.pdf).

But fact-checking is only part of the way to hold back the tide of bullshit. As well as being able to check the quality of the evidence used to support an argument, we need to be able to interrogate the quality of thinking that sits behind it. This is the notion of ‘critical thinking’, which is the art of thinking about thinking. What critical thinking often shows us is that the weakest part of an argument is not the facts it ends up with but the assumptions it starts with. There is nothing hard about critical thinking, but it is a skill that needs instruction and practice. Given how often we see the need for this in the organisations we work with, we now offer a range of seminars in how to improve your critical thinking (see a list here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/index.php?page=seminars).

It may be unfashionable to say this but I can’t help thinking that the best way to beat back the wave of bullshit washing over the world is by encouraging more students to study the liberal arts and the humanities. These subjects let us see where our current ideas fit within a historical and philosophical context, while training graduates how to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. In this regard, these disciplines aren’t about anything in particular so much as a way to think about everything. And make no mistake, it is very much a ‘discipline’. These subjects teach how to ask difficult questions and mistrust easy answers. They also show how every solution creates new problems. As Seneca said, nobody was ever wise by chance.

If it’s true that many of living in the West have ‘lost faith in our own future’ (or, in 2017, think they are about to) then it’s time to rethink that future. To do that, what we need are people who can call that future to a higher standard. Which means, now more than ever, we need more Arts graduates.

  • Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First
Facts Are Stubborn Things

Where are the BA Graduates When We Need Them?

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Reflecting on the last few weeks of this year, it’s easy to see why that apocryphal Ancient Chinese proverb linked ‘living in interesting times’ with being cursed. Today we capture much the same idea when we talk about living with ‘disruption’. And it’s entirely possible that this past year will be seen as the start of some new ‘Age of Disruption’. This has been a year when many of the old certainties (along with the people who championed them) left us for good.

Alongside the major geopolitical events that blindsided most everyone, events across the Middle East keep showing us that we are a long way from ‘the end of history’. Even the internet, which was once promoted as tool for building communities and creating peace, seems to have become what the blog The Daily Banter calls ‘a disinformation dystopia’; a place that has fractured into ‘post-truth’ echo chambers where “lies, conspiracy theories, and general bullshit” thrive.

Add in what is happening with housing, social mobility, and economic inequality, and it’s no wonder that The Financial Times opined that “the west is losing faith in its own future”. Yogi Berra was right when he said “the future ain’t what it used to be” but the present isn’t making much sense either.

It’s precisely times like these when the liberal arts and the humanities show their true value. They do this by allowing us to engage in questions about ‘why?’ rather than simply ‘how?’. We live in a time of unprecedented technical knowledge but it’s hard not to think that people and communities are often left behind in these conversations. Martin Luther King put this much better when he said “our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power, we have guided missiles and misguided men”. His notion of ‘misguided’ fits superbly with our age of disruption. It reminds us that we need to talk about ends as well as means, and to subject both to the fierce light of critical thinking. The kind of conversation where we can separate matters of judgement from matters of fact. In the process, we can start to talk about how we collectively, be that as a city or a country, shape change rather than be shaped by it.

This is what the liberal arts and the humanities offer. They let us see where our current ideas fit within a historical and philosophical context, and they train graduates how to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. At the heart of these disciplines sits the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’. In this regard, these disciplines aren’t about anything in particular so much as a way to think about everything. And make no mistake, it is very much a ‘discipline’. These subjects teach how to ask difficult questions and mistrust easy answers. They also show how every solution creates new problems. As Seneca said, nobody was ever wise by chance.

If it’s true that many of living in the West have ‘lost faith in our own future’ then it’s time to rethink that future. To do that, what we need are people who can call that future to a higher standard. Which means, now more than ever, we need our Arts graduates to step up. Academics use the term ‘zeitgeist’ to capture the notion of the spirit of a particular age. The zeitgeist is the common core of assumptions and beliefs that people living at a particular time share. It’s this zeitgeist that shapes our actions, or leads to inaction on particular issues. But the important point about the zeitgeist is that it’s something most of us think with but rarely about. The exception here is in the liberal arts and humanities. It’s become somewhat unfashionable to talk about ‘deconstruction’ but this is precisely what thinking about the zeitgeist involves. By pulling it apart we can make the assumptions and values underneath the zeitgeist apparent, and in the process expose whose real interests those ideas serve. Interestingly, facing disruption the business world has become hungry for ‘contrarian thinking’ without recognising that the liberal arts and the humanities eat it for breakfast.

 -Carl Davidson is the Head of Insight at Research First Ltd

Where are the BA Graduates When We Need Them?

How Did the Polls Underestimate Trump?

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The day after Donald Trump’s US Presidential Election victory The Dominion Post ran a headline saying ‘WTF’. It left off the question mark so not to cause offence (and asked us to believe that they really meant ‘Why Trump Flourished’). But the question lingers regardless.

For those of us in the research industry, the question we have been asked most often since then – and the question we have asked ourselves most often – is ‘how did the polls get it so wrong?’. It’s a good question. And coming hot on the heels of the polls’ failure to predict Brexit, an important one.

People have tried to answer this question in a number of ways, and each of them tells us something a little different about the nature of polling, the research industry, and voters in general.

The first response might be called the ‘divide and conquer’ argument. This is the one that says not all the polls got the election result wrong. The USC/LA Times poll, for instance, tracked a wave of support for Trump building and predicted Trump’s victory a week out. Similarly, the team at Columbia University and Microsoft Research also predicted Trump’s victory. But what this argument doesn’t do is explain why most polls clearly got it wrong (and even a broken clock is right twice a day).

There is a variation on this argument that we might call ‘divide and conquer 2.0’. This is the argument that says people outside of the industry misunderstood what the polls actually meant. The best example here might be Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com. Before the election 538 gave Trump about a thirty percent chance of winning. To most people, that sounds like statistical short hand for ‘no chance’. But to statisticians, it means that if we ran the election ten times, Trump would win three of them. In other words, Silver was saying all along that Trump could win. Just it was more likely that Hilary would. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb might put it, the problem here is that non-specialists were ‘fooled by randomness’. So the problem isn’t with the pollsters but the pundits.

The next argument might be called ‘duck and run’. This is the argument that says the fault lies with the voters themselves because they probably misrepresented their intentions. Pollsters typically first ask people if they intend to vote, and only then who they’re going to vote for. But, of course, there’s no guarantee the answer to either is accurate. This seems to be the explanation that David Farrar (who is one of New Zealand’s most thoughtful and conscientious pollsters) reached for when approached for comment. Given how many Americans didn’t vote in the election, expect to hear this argument often.

A variation on this ‘duck and run’ argument is that polls are at their least effective where a tight race is being run. In this election, nearly 120 million votes were cast but the difference between the two candidates was only about 200,000 (or less than one third of one percent). It could be that no polling method is sufficiently precise to work under these conditions. If you want to try this line of argument in the office, award yourself a bonus point for referring to the ‘bias-variance dilemma’.

But I think all of these arguments are a kind of special pleading. Worse than that, much of what the industry is now saying looks like classic hindsight bias to me. This is also known as the ‘I-Knew-It-All-Along Effect’, which describes the tendency, after something has happened, to see the event as having been inevitable (despite not actually predicting it). While it’s easy to be wise after the fact, the point of polling is to provide foresight, not heroic hindsight.

And no matter how well intentioned any of these arguments might be, it’s hard not to think we’ve seen them all before. Philip Tetlock’s masterful Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? reports a 20 year research project tracking predictions made by a collection of experts. These predictions were spectacularly wrong but even more dazzling was the experts’ ability to explain away their failures. They did this by some combination of arguing that their predictions, while wrong, were such a ‘near miss’ they shouldn’t count as failure; that they made ‘the right mistake’; or that something ‘exceptional’ happened to spoil their lovely models (think ‘black swans’ or ‘unknown unknowns’). In other words, the same arguments that we’re now seeing the polling industry rolling out to explain what happened with this election.

For me, all of these arguments miss the point and distract us from the real answer. The pollsters (mostly) got the election wrong because the future – despite all our clever models and data analytics – is fundamentally uncertain. Our society loves polls because we crave certainty. It’s the same reason we fall for the Cardinal Bias, the tendency to place more weight on what can be counted than on what can’t be. But certainty will always remain out of reach. What Trump’s victory really teaches us is that all of us should spend less time reading polls and more time reading Pliny the Elder. It was Pliny, after all, who told us ‘the only certainty is that nothing is certain’.

How Did the Polls Underestimate Trump?