GUM, Moscow

Consumer insight: Why asking people for their opinion might prove deceiving.

Not a single person in the world has been missing out on the American elections over the last couple of weeks. Now the time of frantically refreshing the interactive electoral college maps and checking the live-blogs for every little update is over, the dust is starting to settle. One of the questions we still wonder about; how could the polls underestimate Trump again? 

One often mentioned flaw cuts into the heart of surveying people about personal attitudes; social desirability bias. People simply do not always tell other people what they think. A study that illustrates the issue clearly was conducted on an indigenous campsite in Canada. The campsite was staffed by indigenous people. Visitors were asked to fill out a survey to evaluate their stay before they left. Roughly half of the visitors were asked to fill in the survey by a white male researcher, while the other half was asked by his research assistant, a woman of indigenous heritage. The results might not surprise you, in the second scenario the campsite’s ratings were significantly higher, especially regarding service and staff evaluations. Visitors felt more hesitant to give a bad rating to someone they considered closer to the group they would be evaluating. 

Some studies suggest social desirability also accounted for inaccurate polling results in the 2016 election. Most polls predicted a somewhat comfortable win for Hillary Clinton, but we all know what happened in the end. With Trump being linked to racism, anti-immigration policies and previous scandals, respondents might have been careful to associate themselves with supporting such a candidate in the polls. Voting booths are, however, completely anonymous. 

Social desirability skews not only holiday destination reviews and elections but a rather large range of topics considered sensitive; health habits, ethical choices, criminal and sexual behavior, or when the barber asks you whether you like the terrible haircut they just gave you. People tend to over or underemphasize their attitudes and behavior based on what they deem desirable by others or society as a whole.

Do you ever wonder if consumers are completely genuine when expressing spending behavior? Whether people pay more for purposeful brands, or only say they do? 

All the more reason to place more consideration on context when examining human behavior and attitudes. At TrendsActive we use insights from social sciences, such as sociology and psychology to dig deeper into the forces that drive people. We find insights that you will not get from surveys and focus groups and turn the ‘why’ behind the superficial answers into actionable strategies for your brand. Want to know how? Send us a message.