Questioning the Method of Self-Report

On April 1, 2013
We feel that we make the decisions, but our decisions are often influenced by the environment, default options or complexity.
In market research, surveys are used to pose a number of questions to a representative sample of the relevant population. If we are relying on questions, there’s the possibility for a lot of distortion and biases, so there are a number of problems that arise:
People may not respond truthfully, either because they cannot remember or because they wish to present themselves in a socially acceptable manner. Or they want to finish the task as soon as possible.
We can not establish cause and effect relationships from survey data as other variables which could have had an effect may not have been considered in the questionnaire or interview.
There is no way you can be certain that what people say they do accords with what they actually do.
– The researchers that establish the questions and possible answers may omit some options that respondents might have. Also in the case of the highly structured questionnaire, the structure will probably reflect the preconceptions of the compiler, and may force respondents to answer in a way which does not entirely accord with their views. A more open-ended survey, on the other hand, may lead to much more subjectivity when it comes to its interpretation;
thinking-woman-deciding-on-yes-or-no– The way scales are constructed could also bring problems. Let’s say we are asked “how often you use dental floss per day?”. And the answers provided to the respondent may vary from 0 to more than 8 times per day. Many people could choose 1 time per day. So their answer is at the left side of the scale. But if the question is “how often do you use dental floss per month?” and the answers vary from 0 to more than 8 times, many people could answer with more than 8 times. So their answer is at the right side of the scale. Answering on the left side of the scale implies (in our mind) that we are below the norm; answering on the right implies that we are above the norm (nobody is better than us). So the one that answers with 1 time per day may feel that he doesn’t take enough care of his teeth, and the one that chooses more than 8 times per month may consider that he is doing the best he can. The point is that whoever makes the scale, makes the decision – not the respondent. So the people who design the surveys / forms / environments in which we make decisions have a lot to say about our final decision.
–  A default option can push us toward that choice. A research article (The meaning of default options for potential organ donors, published by Davidaia S., Gilovicha T. & Rossb L. in 2012 in PNAS) investigated the decision to become a potential organ donor (after passing away) in various European countries. And their results confirm that culture, personal beliefs or altruism have nothing to do with this decision, but default options like “opt-in” and “opt-out” in forms that people have to complete are the decisive factors! This research demonstrates that people’s preferences can be dramatically influenced by minor variations in the phrasing of a question or by the method by which they are elicited. Such findings, in turn, suggest that preferences often are constructed on the spot and in light of the surrounding context. We would think that The Netherlands and Belgium (similar countries) should have similar potential organ donors rate (the people who agree to donate in case something happens to them, not the actual donors), but it’s not the case: in Netherlands the rate is 28%, and in Belgium it is 98%! And the Netherlands got the 28% after huge efforts: they mailed every citizen in the country a letter begging them to join the organ donation program, and there was coverage on TV and radio. Are you wondering what Belgium did and what they invested? Well, the answer is nothing. No letters or ads.  The studied mentioned earlier found what exactly explains the difference in the 2 countries and it is one little thing: the enrollment form. Countries like the Netherlands (with low rate of participation to organ donation programs) have a form that has a box that says “check the box if you want to participate in the organ donation program” (opt-in). What do people do when they see this form? Nothing – they don’t check the box and they don’t check the program. People really avoid changes, even if they are minor and even when another path is clearly better. On the other hand, countries like Belgium (with high rate of participation to organ donation programs) have a form that has a box that says “check the box if you don’t want to participate in the organ donation program” (opt-out). And people do the same – they don’t check this box, but this means they join the program. So the forms provide a default option, which can push us toward that choice. And after making a choice, we create stories to justify and explain our actions. If we got the opt-in form, we could say that we are not sure about doctors and trusting them, or we could worry someone would pull our plug (to die) a little earlier if we sign this form. On the other hand, if we got the opt-out form, we could say that we are kind, generous and we care about other people.
– In our choices, we avoid complexity and we tend to take the path of least resistance. So too much information or too many choices may 6influence the respondent and make his take the easy way. For example, another research on jams (When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? published by Iyengar S. & Lepper M. in 2000 in Personality Processes and Individual Differences) was conducted in a grocery store in Mountain View, California: in an aisle there was a table with some jam – sometimes it had few jams (6), sometimes it had many jams (24) (see image on the right – source). The researchers’ question was what would attract our attention to a higher degree? Using more jams is more exciting for the people that pass by. About 60% of the people approached the more-jam tables. As for tasting jams – people tries 1 or 2 jams in each group. What about the most important decision? What about buying jam? In the 6-jams condition, 30% of the people buyed jam. In the 24-jams condition, only 3% of the people buyed jam. With so many choices, the complexity of the decision overwhelmed the desire to buy jam. And defaults can be more influential as complexity increases. So, in order to make someone less likely to choose an option, researchers could require opt-in and provide lots of complex, difficult choices.]

So we do need to question the methods of self-report and investigate options that don’t involve so much subjectivity. Neuromarketing provides an objective additional tool for conventional research, as using neuroimaging we can accurately identify how people perceive any type of stimuli. And by understanding what is emotionally engaging, it is possible to infer how likely people are to move towards behavior.

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