From Behavioural Insights To Chris Moyles

Required listening for anyone in research, I think: All In The Mind Special: The Behavioural Insights Team. Interesting contributions to Claudia Hammond‘s Radio 4 documentary from the likes of Prof. Richard Thaler, Dr. David Halpern and Warwick University psychologist Neil Stewart as well as the more sceptical Nick Pearce of the IPPR.

Dr. David Halpern heads The Behavioural Insight Team at the Cabinet Office. Though he didn't apply much insight to his choice of tie, hmmm

It’s all about the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, led by Halpern, which is now in its second year of operation. Britain is the first country in the world to have such a unit at the heart of government, though Thaler’s compadre Cass Sunstein is a close adviser to Barack Obama (who I believe heads up a struggling former British outpost).

Thaler gives good quote. He sums up why Nudge is so important and relevant when he observes: “We’re busy, life is complicated, we’re not Einstein.”

If the All In The Mind programme is anything to go by, behavioural insights approaches now are widely accepted. Even critics do not doubt that, at the most basic level, incorporating behavioural insights into how government or business talks to the public is a no-brainer. In fact, it’s doing what people have always done – drafting language that will get people’s attention – but doing it in a more informed way. It’s more informed because it takes account of how people actually read, digest and act upon the messages they receive.

Sir Gus O'Donnell - Le Grand Fromage of the Civil Service and (Plastic) Cockney Red. All round great bloke.

The Behavioural Insight Team’s approach is eminently sensible – develop communication strategies that take account of known tendencies like loss avoidance, norming, status quo bias and so on, test them all out and see which work best. For example, it works better to send a late taxpayer a letter pointing out that 90 per cent of other people paid weeks ago, than one that portrays late payment as common. They worked out the optimal wording after trialling many different forms of wording. Changes like this can save many millions of taxpayers’ money. And it’s good to hear the generally brilliant and forward-looking Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell is really backing this too. This experimental approach is precisely what Wendy Gordon was advising us in qual to be thinking more about back in May, on the AQR’s first ever Behavioural Economics workshop day.

I enjoyed Thaler’s rejection of the House of Lords committee report on Nudge as “massively uninformed”. Julia Neuberger‘s complaints about lack of large scale evidence do seem to ignore the many examples of real life proof of its effects, on a huge scale, in the US.  The pensions and organ donation examples are discussed in Nudge itself. Nor has this come out of nowhere: in fact the Nudge agenda is a belated catching up by governments with what psychologists and even market researchers have known for decades. Psychologist Neil Stewart points out that at supermarket shelves, people are more likely to choose “the middle one” than “the end one” – even though they will swear blind that position was not a factor. Iain Janes of Eye-tracker has been producing the video evidence for this for a long time (and I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on a few).

Not an ad for your final journey to Switzerland. Though granted, that would be a big call.

Supermarkets have known about in-store hot-spots and the importance of the eye-level shelves for decades. And in research, we’ve been working on the basis that the behaviour we’re studying is often more about the automatic system than the reflective system (if we follow the “dual process” model of how people think) since before I started, back in 1998. The interplay between the two is, indeed, the stuff of many a qual research project.

Where I can see an area for justifiable scepticism is if behavioural insights are touted as some kind of replacement for legislation and regulation. In cash-strapped times with a conservative-liberal government, you can see how it may be tempting for them to jump on the Nudge Agenda for the wrong reasons: it’s cheap, effective and has an ideological fit for libertarians, enabling change to be made by individuals themselves, rather than imposed by government. As Nick Pearce of the IPPR says though, the government should not be lulled into thinking Nudge allows it to get away with doing less itself. (Here’s his blog IPPR – Nick Pearce’s blog). Could Nudge be used as a Trojan horse for a neo-liberal small government agenda? Possibly, but again I think this might be alarmist. The democratic implications of it all are interesting though: see my piece from a few months ago on that Organ Freeman: Thaler on Nudge.

But we should not get carried away with the idea that Nudge is somehow underhand and manipulative. Neil Stewart hits the nail on the head: the biases are there anyway; choice architecture is always there, you can’t not have it. Ignoring the Nudge advice does not make human behaviour go away. So you might as well create better choice architecture. Looked at another way, ignoring behavioural insights is actually to take a wild punt. You’re gambling that the outcome people might default to – e.g. putting away 5 per cent of salary for their pension – will be better for them and society than any possible other outcome, e.g. putting away 10 per cent of your salary. But without actually evaluating the alternatives. Surely you want the default to be one you want, not one you don’t? A no-brainer, surely.

Of course, consumer businesses I work with have long understood it. What they are looking much more closely at now is how to actually effect behavioural change. For them, the rise of BE means being much more direct than before; no longer looking just at media and brand comms but at understanding, ethnographically, brand touchpoints in a lot more depth; and examining what it takes for people to edge one way or the other at the critical moments. This is a hugely rich field for qualitative research. Shore expects to be very involved in the coming years.

Moyles: inflate by inserting beer and Ginster's slices here

My favourite quote from the programme though was when Thaler said, talking of how governments can nudge people towards more healthy lifestyles: “There aren’t many people who want to be fatter and drunker.”  His figures may be falling, but Chris Moyles still has 7.16 million listeners (Rajar on Moyles). A day with him and Prof. Thaler will be seeking a fresh research grant (and possibly some botched throat surgery for Moyles).

Hallowe’en night and a haunted viewing room

Who would be a qualitative researcher, eh? This post is not at all influenced by my having something of a difference of opinion last night with some clients over a group discussion …but ever the Polyanna, I’m turning this into something positive, by lecturing everyone on how to avoid the pitfalls of watching discussion groups.

So it was Hallowe’en night, I’d missed my son’s party to leave for the discussion groups, but left him my spooky compilation CD in the true manner of a 40-something Dad (featuring way too much of The Fall, little bits of Bauhaus, The Specials and yes The Monster Mash). All started – and almost until the end, continued – very well. I’d negotiated my way through the white water ride of a potentially tricky group, doing some creative NPD with some 18-24 year old lads. I’d got through a tight guide nicely; and more importantly, the lads had really engaged with the discussion (not always the case in 18-24 male groups) and told us as much about themselves as we dared hope for. I was just preparing myself to accept the plaudits modestly from the viewing room.

For a moderator, the machinations in the viewing room can be scarier than a cemetery in Transylvania

But when you step out of the hubbub of the discussion room and venture back there, you never quite know what you’re going to get. Especially with new clients. As soon as I opened the door I could sense some kind of spell in the room: deathly quiet; furrowed brows; no eye contact. It was a qual research Hallowe’en nightmare. All that was missing was the bell tolling, a howling wind and a wolf silhouetted by the moon. What had gone wrong back there?

It wouldn’t be appropriate to do a post-mortem here. But assuming I’m not completely deluded about how to moderate a discussion group after 13 years (having been, inter alia, head of marketing qual at Ipsos MORI) how could this happen?

Of course, there is no ‘perfect’ in qual and you always look to improve, but that aside, I’ve long been fascinated with the disconnect between a group that a qual researcher would recognise as a success and one that clients recognise as a success. I also supervise groups, sitting with clients, so have experience on both sides of the mirror here. Watching and commenting on groups is not as easy as it may look, especially if you’re not so comfortable with qual.

So I’ve drawn up a few basic rules to help discussion group viewers get their heads around what they are seeing and hearing – aimed at those who do not hang out in viewing facilities as much as I do (lucky you!):

  • Don’t worry if it doesn’t make immediate sense – wait for the analysis. To follow a cooking analogy, you are watching the chef gathering some of the ingredients. You are not watching him/her prepare the dish and you are not going to be able to taste it yet.
  • For the same reason, value your first insights but treat them with caution too. An initial insight may be valid, it may not. Again, you can only tell by analysing properly in the round.
  • Don’t take what group participants say literally. What they tell us and show us is evidence we use to work them out, it is not gospel.
  • What people say spontaneously, unprompted, tends to tell us much more about them than what they say when put on the spot (with some exceptions). Moderators try to minimise their interventions – so the discussions are as natural as they can be, given that we’re in a viewing facility with a bunch of strangers here.
  • The moderator hears, sees and picks up a whole lot more, by being in the room and looking people in the eye. Ask the moderator what he/she felt about the vibe, body language etc. But the moderator does not have the freedom viewers have to switch away from the group for a few minutes to take a thought and ponder it. So those viewing have more of a chance to develop thoughts (though they risk missing something important when they do). Conversation between moderator and viewers after the group should be based on this understanding of these relative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Follow-up probing is important in groups but it has to be used selectively. It can bore the participants not being probed; it is hungry on time. But worse, it can make people over-rationalise and self-justify, rather than be themselves (not just the person being probed but the others who think, “It’s me next”). Qual research at its best comes at things indirectly; asking the moderator to do more direct probing is not always the way to get more understanding.
  • Remember, this is the bit of the research process where we build around participants, not the other way around.
  • Different audiences need different moderating styles. A naturally chatty group has one set of challenges – e.g. keeping them on-topic and cutting people short without disempowering them – a quiet group has another. Typically the moderator will seem to be “working harder” with the latter but he/she is really working equally hard with both.
  • Good recruitment is important, but you can’t and shouldn’t seek to over-engineer the minutiae of each person you invite. They are people and if they don’t fit neatly into a box, that’s normal. Of course if you just have totally the wrong people, that’s different and is a big issue.
  • Qualitative research can be very counter-intuitive. It is not just a research technique – it is a whole approach to gathering and making sense of information that will jar with the way many approach the world and especially their working life. It’s more of a leap for those without an arts or humanities background, because critical analysis skills are the most relevant ones for interpreting the meaning of discourses. It is instinctive to seek to measure, to seek order and to seek direct answers; it is also drummed into most of us in school. But qual explores, highlights and makes connections; it embraces mess and lets it breathe and live so we can study it. Order is only really imposed at the final stage of sense-making. This can feel very uncomfortable for those used to being in control right the way through. It also requires trust in the researcher’s ability to do the sense-making.
  • Moderators often “play dumb” in groups as a strategy for getting people to explain themselves. It does not mean they are dumb. Though they can be.

I’m not the first qual researcher to be frustrated by clients having a different take on a group and I won’t be the last. Aren’t we just the misunderstood geniuses? But if one future group viewer takes note of one of these tips, I’ll be at least as happy as Bela Lugosi (and hopefully less dead than him). Of course, sometimes, it is our fault …

Kahneman and the real meaning of Man Utd’s 6-1 defeat

As a Man Utd fan since the days of George Best (I am just about that old – I precociously started supporting them aged 3 in 1973), I was of course pretty disappointed by the events at Old Trafford on Sunday: BBC match report on Man Utd 1-6 Man City. But more interesting to me were the reactions of the football experts afterwards. While the media were gurgling about the match, I was also reading Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman‘s article in the New York Times on the over-confidence of experts: Daniel Kahneman – Don\’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence. It struck me that many of the football experts on Radio 5Live, Sky Sports and elsewhere were making a lot of “cognitive fallacies”. Kahneman has some clues as to why.

Alan Green: not as wise as Daniel Kahneman

Their claims: City showed themselves superior to United, they thrashed them and taught them a football lesson. The problem: recent history actually points to these occasional heavy defeats being more galvanising for Ferguson United teams than the teams who beat them – see today’s Independent (at the end of the Balotelli story): United stand: how they react to humblings. United lost similarly badly to their nearest rivals in three recent seasons and went on to win the league. Add to that, that United played with 10 men for much of the second half – a fact mentioned but not given much significance in most reports – and you wonder why so many pundits are now talking about United in such dire terms?

Kahneman describes how, as a young conscript in the Psychology Branch of the Israeli army, he had helped evaluate candidates for officer training, by watching their performances in team exercises. He duly made recommendations: so and so is a natural leader, so and so is slow to take on others’ ideas etc. The problem was, when these candidates got to officer training school, the evaluations turned out to be useless predictors of how well they would do there:”Our forecasts were better than blind guesses, but not by much.” Did the young Kahneman then change his approach? Here’s the interesting thing: he didn’t. Unable to take on board the scale of the re-think required, he ploughed on as before: “The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgments of particular candidates, but it did not. It should also have caused us to moderate our predictions, but it did not.”

Daniel Kahneman: even he acted like an idiot once. But he learned from it.

What allowed him to feel OK about carrying on like this was that his system of evaluating performance had “the illusion of validity”. There was visual evidence he could point to of what each candidate had done in the exercise (working as a team to get a log over a wall); he could reference the results and who had played what role in achieving them. The judgments were valid, in their own terms. It’s just that they bore little relation to what the Israeli army actually needed to know. But it was easier to stick with a familiar process.

The 6-1 scoreline gives the illusion of validity to a story of United on the wane. As Football 365 put it, “it feels like City have arrived to overtake United as the team of the present and that their time has come.” But it’s October, United are in contention at 2nd in the league and have played some scintillating football, on a level above recent seasons. They had been favourites to beat Man City on Sunday. So why are many experts ignoring the bigger picture and projecting so dubiously from one disastrous match?

Kahneman calls his own failure an example of “WYSIATI” (what you see is all there is):”People who face a difficult question [SR: like the probable outcome of the Premiership title race] often answer an easier one instead, without realising it [SR: like what was the score in that match].” Kahneman goes on to say: “Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias towards coherence favours overconfidence.”

Football is especially prone to a cognitive fallacy we all fall prey to – football writers often tell the story of the final result, not the story of the play. Football analysis in this country is remarkably free of undeserved victories, because the analysts post-rationalise the events of the game to make themselves come across, reasonably enough, as rational and wise. In explaining why the victory happened, the pundit often gives the impression it was always likely to happen as it did. The uncertainties felt at the time are forgotten. A goal is taken to mean more than just a goal, it’s an expression of dominance. Yet even the best teams concede goals and even lose matches by big scores. We struggle to explain this; it jars. So we pretend it doesn’t happen (unless you’re The Independent).

... or at least highly suspect

There’s a qualitative research lesson in all this too: beware the convenient and easy story. The best qualitative research has to look at all the surrounding evidence too, including contradictory data. The best qual researchers tell stories well but only after going through a quite different process: being very tough on themselves and taking on board inconvenient truths. You have to doubt your own judgment every step of the way. Even mine.

Of course it could be that United do fall apart; who knows? But do seasoned Premiership watchers seriously think this result heralds anything more than what it was – a one-off defeat, albeit a terrible one? Or were they just getting carried away with the moment?

The tyranny of the “left brain” – RSA Animate

Here is an RSA Animate of a talk by Iain McGilchrist on “the divided brain” – highly recommended.

While the division into left and right brain is a myth, he says, there are indeed two modes of thinking: one open, alive, messy, intuitive; and the other our ordered and rational working of a closed system. We do best when we harness both types of thought. But in the West at least, says McGilchrist, we have fallen into privileging our ability to be “rational” over our wrestlings with uncertainty and living, changing things. Technicians sound more convincing in our culture than ideas people. Which is probably a bit of an issue.

He’s not wrong. Qual researchers may not be brain scientists, but what McGilchrist argues for is very much our schtick. It’s great to see a bit of “scientific” validation for it.

Someone asked in the research media last year why you don’t get many qual researchers on the boards of big research companies. True, we tend to care about work-life balance(though often working like maniacs), which doesn’t help you climb the corporate ladder; and we like our businesses to be on a human scale too, which makes us a tricky cultural fit within big organisations. But what we do must be a big factor too: that we sail the open seas of the messy, alive and intuitive parts of thinking rather than navigating the canal system of measurement and numbers.

The Life Aquatic: Sailing The High Seas of Truth, Examining Every Porthole

This is not undervalue the role of the latter: qual would be nowhere without them. To pitch one’s tent in the “right brain” in the business world, though, as qual researchers do, is to sail against prevailing winds and offer a different way of thinking about the issues. And it is to be all too easily sidelined, when the big decisions are made. Yet this is a big part of qual research’s real value to large organisations, whose collective brains can get dangerously lop-sided without voices like ours. As David Hume put it and McGilchrist confirms, reason is better thought of as “the slave of the passions” than the other way around.

It will take a few years for the generation of business people being raised now on these ideas – seen in the behavioural economics of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge, Lehrer’s The Decisive Moment and Ariely‘s Predictably Irrational – to take over. When they do, they will be fundamentally changing how their organisations go about their research. The “econ” is, I fear still alive and well in more than a few closed systems out there. This generation will be throwing them in the bin.

Will they come knocking on qual researchers’ doors to carry out the research projects they realise they need? And will we be ready? If AQR events I have attended this year in the UK are anything to judge by, there is an impressive body of qual talent out there gearing up their businesses to meet this future demand. All power to the elbows of people like Wendy Gordon and Sarah Davies for blazing the trail.

Of course, qual researchers also need to get better at the more mechanical stuff too. How are those 2010-11 accounts coming on?

Choice as a barrier to change – from RSA Animate

Just passing this one on, really: it’s one of those lovely RSA Animate illustrated talks, with Prof Renata Saleci’s views on how the proliferation of individual choice keeps us all from asking bigger questions (or at least, from doing anything about the answers). It’s the other side of the coin of personal empowerment – personal responsibility, guilt and feelings of inadequacy when things, inevitably, are less than ideal. We blame ourselves as individuals rather than addressing the big structural issues. That’s the theory anyway!

But is this changing …? We’ll see if OWS etc fans out into anything more significant. But there’s more big picture thinking about this now by more people (in the twittersphere at least) than Prof Saleci may credit. Whether it amounts to a head of steam remains to be seen.

I also like that the workers bees look like the Mexican tv bee guy from The Simpsons.

Creating memories: Jonah Lehrer and faux Monty Python

Jonah Lehrer, whose The Decisive Moment – How The Brain Makes Up Its Mind I’m reading at the moment, has written a really interesting piece in Wired magazine about how we don’t just make things up, we can actually change our memories: Jonah Lehrer – How Social Conformity Affects Memory. There is, in particular, unacknowledged pressure to make our recollections of events conform to how we think other people have recollected it.

Lehrer’s article is well worth a read on how stories change over time, even to the point where contemporaneous memories are replaced by later fabrications which seem more plausible to us. The longitudinal study by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps on people who witnessed the 9/11 atrocities ( 9/11 witness memory study) is especially interesting on how personal, immediate memories of even these kinds of vivid personal experiences don’t so much decay with time as change without us realising it.

Looking pretty Victorian there, Jonah: are you a steampunk?

What Lehrer doesn’t talk about so much here is why this happens. A big part of this has to be that so many people have quite bad memories but are embarrassed to admit it. It makes them seem incompetent and unreliable. So we think we remember something; but then another version of it comes into our head and we aren’t sure which is ‘true’. When someone else who seems to remember better gives their version, we gratefully fall into line.

Then there are the personality-driven aspects to mis-remembering too. Some people are much more prone than others, not just because of their memory but their psychological profile. Carl Jung was onto this when he talked about how ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’, ‘sensation’ and ‘intuitive’ types describe the same event quite differently. In his version, the ‘sensation’ type was the most observant and accurate it recording physical events; the ‘intuitive’ type probably least so. You can see how the latter would be happy to defer to the former’s visual description of what actually happened; while not necessarily deferring on what it means.

Last night’s BBC4 comedy docu-drama Holy Flying Circus was an interesting – and pretty funny – musing on how you might reconstruct real life events based on partial memory, rumour, media stereotyping and the need to tell a compelling story. Here’s the BBC iPlayer link: Holy Flying Circus. In this, the Pythons in 1979 are depicted as characters made up of what we now know about them. Bits of their subsequent lives are cut and pasted into a hyper-real historical narrative; false memory syndrome is given full freedom to roam. Cleese attacks someone with a branch, supports the as-yet-non-existent Lib Dems and is played as a blend between a magazine-interview-Cleese and one of the stiff Establishment characters he parodied on-screen. Eric Idle is already pilloried as a sell-out and we see the kernel of Spamalot. Knowing nothing of Michael Palin‘s domestic life, we implant ‘Terry Jones‘ in drag as Palin’s wife to fill the gap.

It reminded me of the brilliant 80s Comic Strip Presents film about a film about the Miners’ Strike, called Strike! Peter Richardson played Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill … inspired.

It’s pitched as a bit of fantasy – and it is – but it’s actually pretty close to how we really do cobble together many of our narratives in real life, joining together half-remembered islands of dubious “certainty” into a coherent story. My wife is an academic historian and actually trawls through such things as archives before starting to think about putting a story together. But in everyday life – and particularly in business – people don’t have time for that.  They take what comes readily to mind and make a story. It’s pitched as “good enough” – but is it? The more we squeeze analysis time on projects, the more we role we give to the half-remembered.

Deceptive memory is a pitfall in research for researchers themselves and participants. Luckily we qual researchers have the Olympus (they’ve really cornered the market) digi-recorder and usually dvds of groups. Listening or watching back is a huge part of our job of “sense-making”.

As for research participants, Lehrer’s article is a reminder, if it were needed, of why discussion groups are not the tool for behavioural research. Reported behaviour in discussion groups is to be taken with a very big pinch of salt – not because participants are being dishonest, but because people are terrible at remembering the detail of what they do, worse even than they think they are. Groups are fantastic for getting to people’s values, what makes them tick, getting input into a creative development process, but not for people telling you about what they actually do.

Behavioural economics approaches are now throwing more light on these areas; semiotic analysis is also important, as a way of analysing important contexts that people can’t tell you about.

If only more mis-rememberings were as entertaining as the Holy Flying Circus. The real life interview wasn’t half bad either, even if it was conducted by Tim Rice.


Angelic Upstarts: Lynx Turns Boys Into Men

I notice the Lynx Fallen Angel tv ads now have a comedy addendum (see above). What better way to seal the deal with the target audience than some irreverent visual gags with our now familiar fallen angelic lasses? Rule No1 of British popular culture is that where sex goes, comedy must surely follow – titter ye not. Sex takes itself seriously and therefore offends comedy’s sensibilities. It needs to be brought down to size. But the new ad does more than just add laughs – it changes the Lynx Adolescent into a Lynx Man.

Lynx has for a long time put across an image of young men as desperate fantasists who are pretty hopeless with women. Which was certainly true in my case (sorry, ladies, I’m no longer available). They somehow luck out and hey, guess what, it could be that funky deodorant they’re wearing … For the deodorant to be hero, the lads have had to be a bit inadequate. Lynx has been careful not to intimidate our cowering youths with macho body shapes or rugged features: the male models are basically nice skinny indie kids or clubbers too blissed out to be able to pull. Then Lynx comes along: deodorant as aphrodisiac. At times it’s been like watching ads for rohypnol. Not very subtle but gets the message across, it’s relevant, clear, kind of fun. It sort of worked. But you sensed the lads’ immaturity remained, locking them in a dependent relationship with their Lynx. The Lynx was helping them, but it was actually stopping them growing up at the same time. But the new ad makes men – or rather “blokes” – of them.

Now we have a new type of Lynx guy: ‘man in possession of girlfriend’. This is different. He’s in control; he’s got her. He’s moved straight from drooling inanely at the sight of a pretty girl to taking her for granted. He only fleetingly passed her, moving up the status ladder as she was coming down. Now he is embarrassed by her, her god-like aura shattered (presumably by being bedded by him – funny how the power dynamic shifts at that point). The girl is now human – and indeed, being female, a slightly lesser form of human in his eyes. Because he has morphed into a trad bloke.

No longer in awe, he adopts a affectionate relationship with her – he sees her as sweet and quirky – he really wants to pat her on the head more than pleasure her. As in earlier Lynx ads, he’s still the “normal” one coming into contact with the other-worldly – but now he’s tamed her and her other-worldliness is dismissed as oddness. He is a man in control.

So these Lynx blokes go from being invisible to women to seeing right through them in a trice. Dizzying. It’s a study in the “battle and conquer” school of relationships, beloved of 3rd Century A.D. legionnaries and Colin Farrell. As such, it plugs them into a universal male belief system, not just metrosexual yoof.

It will be interesting to see where it goes from here; I have an inkling:

  • In the next ad, he dumps the angel and goes out with her best mate.
  • In the one after that, like the sirens of Greek myth, the bird-women will reveal their hideously ugly visages and attempt to fly off across the Aegean with our heroes in their talons. Cut to a grotesque cliff nest, with Lynx man’s fragrant torso being fed to several hungry chicks. Certificate 18.

The future isn’t here yet – and it never will be

As WARC shows again today, to no one’s particular surprise, tv advertising gives a better return on investment than advertising in any other medium. Link: WARC on tv advertising. It’s another reminder of why we researchers need to be giving insights first and foremost into the whole picture of how people are behaving today. And this means not getting so dazzled by the new that we underplay the role of continuity in people’s patterns of behaviour.

It may be a rubbish ad, but it's on the telly

Now, don’t get me wrong, getting our heads around the ever-morphing role of social media in people’s lives – and thus in media planning – is both important and interesting. And of course it’s important to look at emerging trends. I was at one stage involved in “future scanning” work myself*. But I wonder if we as an industry confuse our clients sometimes, by talking so much about what is new that they end up thinking that it’s the most important thing to know. Reading the marketing and research media, one could be forgiven for getting the impression that tv advertising was the least interesting part of the brand communications mix. The quality of creativity in tv advertising in the UK is not what it was in its 90s heyday – or am I showing my age here – but its continuing potential to communicate powerfully is not to be under-estimated.

Even in hindsight we sometimes overplay change and under-estimate continuity. One fairly striking example: we regard English people as mainly of “Anglo-Saxon” descent, when the Anglo-Saxon invasions actually only left a 5 per cent element in our gene pool. The English are mainly descended from peoples who had inhabited the land for thousands of years before that. Continuity was ignored in the development of this national myth: change was more of a story.

As it turns out, focusing too much on the future is a perennial human failing, as an article on the Freakonomics site explains (see link further below). We’ve been doing it since well before an astute Roman scrawled humanum est errare on a tablet and threw up his lunch over an Illyrian slave. And we do err. It turns out our “experts” are terrible at predictions, as anyone familiar with the Match of the Day sofa will know. Freakonomics did a piece which was also broadcast on Radio 4 during the summer, about some academic work by Christina Fang and Jerker Denrell on the reliability of expert predictions: Freakonomics: the Folly of Prediction. Fang, a professor of management at NYU’s Stern business school, took a hard look at the history of economic forecasting and found that “the big voices you hear making bold predictions are less trustworthy than average.” And if we think this frailty is confined to economists, we are deluding ourselves.

For me, the most interesting aspect of doing innovation research (which I’ve done quite a lot of) is seeing what ordinary people make of the new ideas or products we ask them to help us develop. But you can only interpret what you’re hearing and seeing by being grounded, as qualitative researchers are, in the reality of people’s lives. It’s by spending time in people’s homes and taking time to listen, watch and think that we help innovators. Innovation isn’t about creating a clean, perfect future; it’s about growing something organically out of the messy present.

* The future scanning work I was involved in with the Horizons unit at Ipsos MORI – under the guidance of the fantastic Julian Thompson, now at the RSA – avoided the folly of making predictions. Our approach was basically horizon-scanning. We gathered in the whole range of predictions and musings experts were making about long term trends and helped clients think about these in an organised way: which ones were relevant for them, what level of priority they needed to be giving to them and so on. It was really an epistemological sense-making exercise – and definitely NOT futurology.

Bert Jansch: Let No Man Steal His Thyme

Bert Jansch died today after a battle with cancer. He was a giant of British music, not just folk music; I hope by the end of his life he appreciated the impact he had on so many, including me and, more significantly, other musical heroes of mine like Neil Young, Jonny Marr, Beth Orton and Bernard Butler.

Like many former indie kids increasingly bored with that genre’s output over the last decade, I found myself listening to more and more folk music, inter alia. (I’m also a former lawyer, so I say things like inter alia from time to time as if it’s normal). I fiddled around with Fairport Convention and so on – a culture shock initially for a Sex Pistols and Stooges fan – and eventually came to Bert Jansch and Pentangle, the band with whom he did some of his best work between 1968 and 1972. I was gripped. While hugely accomplished as a musician, he didn’t fall into the trap of putting his own abilities ahead of the music. Like Jonny Marr (see my earlier post), he served the music.

I won’t labour it, but here was a special musician.

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before …

For anyone who thinks you can understand an interview purely from the transcription, Exhibit No1: Mr. J Marr talking about his craft and sullen art. It’s only about 3 minutes in you realise he’s making very little sense verbally, but somehow alongside the riffing demonstrations, it all kind of hangs together. But you need all your senses and a familiarity with Marshall speakers to follow it.

I wish I’d done the interview, but that’s not my schtick. I get to interview people about incontinence and beer packaging (though not at the same time). But maybe I should get people to riff while they talk …

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