Saturday, November 19, 2011

Don't Think Too Much

At lunch today I read the chapter about introspection from Dave McRaney's You Are Not So Smart. The upshot is that we don't know why we like the things we like, but when asked, we'll come up with reasons that have little to do with anything -- but that our brains think sound plausible. The real reasons, which are subconscious, are not accessible to our rational minds.

The archetypal research on this phenomenon asked two sets of college students to select a free poster for their bedroom. The people in one group just took the poster and left; the others had to give a written explanation of why they had made a particular selection. Six months later, the subjects were asked to assess their posters, and the thoughtless people loved theirs, while the analyzers disliked theirs. "The first group, the grab-and-go people, usually picked a nice, fancy painting. The second group...usually picked an inspirational poster with a cat clinging to a rope" (page 65). Essentially, deliberating and verbalizing led to a bad decision.

This, of course, implies that the entire field of criticism is questionable. Writing up what you think of a movie or book may not describe what you like about it in any helpful way. But for me, more importantly, it also calls into question marketing research.

I've always hated marketing research and its effects on product and brand development. I participated in a food focus group once, and remember thinking it was kind of silly. As McRaney puts it, that type of market analysis is "less about the intrinsic quality of the things being judged and more about what the people doing the judging find to be plausible explanations of their own feelings" (page 66).

Taste tests are also called out for a bit of ridicule. Researcher Tim Wilson gave subjects
five varieties of jam which had previously been ranked by Consumer Reports as the first, eleventh, twenty-fourth, thirty-second, and forty-fourth best jams on the market. One group tasted and ranked how good they thought the jams were. The other group had to write out what they did and did not like about each one as they tasted it.... the people who didn't have to explain themselves gravitated toward the ones Consumer Reports said were best. The people forced to introspect rated the jams inconsistently [and] focused on aspects [other than taste] like texture or color of viscosity.
Reading that section made me think of all the taste-test articles I've read in newspaper and magazines. Who has the best ice cream in town? Which tomato tastes best? They're always full of rationalizations from the judges about texture or other details, when it sounds like the only reliable method would be to rank the products but not think about why.

I'll have to remember not too think to hard the next time I'm picking out a poster.


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Interesting! I'm analytical by nature and I often think a well-thought-out action is, shall we say, virtuous. I'll have to rethink that (hahaha, sorry).

Ms Sparrow said...

I subscribe to Cook's Magazine and they rate different brands of foods such as butter, ketchup or olive oil.
Often the comments of those raters are so esoteric as to be meaningless.
While their ratings of small kitchen appliances and utensils are useful, I'm not too impressed by their top rated selections in foods.