Why marketers should stop asking customers why they do things

Gary Wilkinson and Ashton BishopConsumer responses to the question of ‘why’ are often unintentional lies and therefore the wrong basis for marketing insight, say Ashton Bishop and Gary Wilkinson in a piece that first appeared in Encore.

You are a liar. And so are your customers. Okay, so now you’re offended. We don’t like to think of ourselves as liars. Why? Because lying suggests self-serving manipulation and deceit. So what about when we’re not being manipulative, self-serving, deceitful or otherwise – but we’re still fibbing? It’s called confabulation and we all do it all of the time.

Marketers frequently ask customers and prospects why they do things. Many accept the responses at face value and then spend scarce marketing budget using these responses to guide their actions. There is enough evidence to suggest that this spend is based on falsehood or at least only half the story – our rationalised reasons. This information is important – you don’t want to contradict your customer’s rationalized view of the world. But reinforcing it won’t get them to choose you.

At the 2012 German Neuroscience Congress the headline consensus was that 95 per cent of the brain’s thinking processes are not made available to the conscious mind. Trust the Germans to quantify something – but what an acknowledgement of the lack of conscious control we have over most of our decisions. You might have heard that we make emotional decisions then make rational justifications, but it’s different when we experience it. Try it now.

What’s your mother’s maiden name? Say it. Okay, how did you recall it? If you came up with an answer to the ‘how’, you are a liar. We can call you that with a 95 per cent degree of confidence. We don’t consciously know how we access memories, why we like things, why we choose things; but this doesn’t stop us making up reasons very easily. The phenomenon occurs between our two-hemisphered brain and it has been proven scientifically in split-brain patients (when the connections between the two sides of the brain have been surgically severed). The experiment went like this. The patient is given an input to the right hemisphere only with an instruction to walk. The patient gets up and starts to walk. The researcher then asks them why they got up. The left hemisphere then jumps in and the patient confidently tells the researcher: “I need a glass of water.” Lab-proven confabulation.

In another experiment the much reviewed social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson placed four sets of stockings outside a department store and asked women to select the ones of the highest quality. The ones placed on the far right were the clear winner. The pairs were actually identical. What is really interesting was the reaction of the test subjects who thought the researchers were mad – couldn’t they see that the far right was clearly the best quality?

We’re all masters at confabulations. We do this to fill in the blanks that make life more comfortable. We have a blind spot that’s about two per cent of our total vision and it’s right in the middle of our eyes. Do we see it? No, we have a visual confabulation that fills it in. We do the same with our rationalistion of decisions. What is needed to complete the picture is an understanding of what really drives behavior through observation or experimental design, just like Nisbett and Wilson’s stocking experiment.

Ashton Bishop is the head of strategy at Step Change Marketing and Gary Wilkinson is a behavioural psychologist and founder of Blisspoint Research.


Encore Issue 33This feature first appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.



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