Is Research Irrational?

Jun 07 2010

Dan Ariely’s work in behavioural economics is famous (and profound) in terms of breaking down the minutiae of human behaviour, through elegant experiments which measure what people really do in specific contexts, as opposed to what we all believe we do (which is often very different).  Many of his findings are stark and counter-intuitive: for instance, that bigger bonuses actually reduce performance rather than improve it!

He also has strong views on the value of market research.  I can’t agree with everything Dan Ariely says on research, but I do agree that much of what market research measures is based on a rational view of consumer behaviour which is simply not supported by the evidence (including the evidence of Dan Ariely’s experiments).  Much of what we do is unconscious and not accessible to our ‘conscious’ minds.  When we ask respondents ‘rational’ questions, in focus groups, individually or through mass surveys, we are often just asking them to imagine a reason for their own behaviour which may bear little relation to their underlying motivations (which they simply do not know).  To put it bluntly, we are giving respondents permission to write their own fiction.  This doesn’t mean that research is a waste of time and money, but does imply that researchers should focus more clearly on which decisions are rational and conscious, and which are not, and on understanding the behaviour itself (through listening and observing).  Only then should we start thinking about asking questions.

Every researcher should read the article (the link is below).

The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely (2010)

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