I never expected this: hunched in a small plane bumping through clouds staring at a patch of green emerging slowly through the mist.
I was going to Orkney to research electricity usage and tariffs for Big Sofa.
A dry subject, on the face of it; possibly the only dry thing in Orkney at the time.
It was not such an unusual research project, two group discussions and some in-home visits. Although I was 210 miles from the nearest ‘viewing facility’.
But as I sat in the steamed-up taxi going back to the airfield the next day, I suddenly realised what had been happening.
As discussed last time there is a trend in research to value data about ‘consumers’ over information from people. ‘New Behaviourism’ has it that people are unreliable witnesses to their own behaviour. People dissemble, deceive or otherwise diddle us, without realising it.
This is not a new idea, of course. David Ogilvy is said to have said:
"The trouble with research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”
The last point most exercises New Behaviourists. They say that talking to people in research is old hat. It is better to experiment on them eg using electrodes or flashing images at them or tracking their movements and those of all their friends.
Now, we all know that people do not always do what they say (how could you, anyway?). But what the Orkney trip taught me is that there are certain kinds of conversations which get closer to the behaviour they are designed to explore. I’d call these ‘contiguous conversations’.
This is not meant to be as pompous as it probably sounds. It is simply meant to underline how helpful it is to remove the ‘stuff’ which gets in the way or distances you from the behaviour you are exploring, when talking to people.
Not only was I physically close to the subject at hand, there was also a will or an intention on their part to understand and to articulate what they did and how they felt about their electricity usage, arrangements and suppliers.
As it happens, it is quite a complicated set of behaviour (that’s an understatement), subject to many biases, in Behavioural Economics (BE) terms. These include the ‘better the devil you know’ bias, the ‘frankly, I cannot be arsed’ bias and the ‘gobbledegook resistance bias’.
These are well-known behavioural heuristics, re-purposed. Which is one of the fascinating things about BE, how often biases crop up, in different guises.
And more are emerging all the time. I would not be surprised to learn that a Princeton professor had uncovered a new bias, the bias of the unknown bias.
So in the taxi on that damp day on an island far from home, I wondered how to have more ‘contiguous conversations’ under more typical circumstances.
Which is the next chapter in the story.