People don’t care about numbers, so how do we get them to act?

Market researchers need to step back from the numbers and become storytellers if they want to get people to care, and to act, argues Matthew Swinson.

People don’t care about numbers. We consistently fail to act on them. If we hear a story of a child in a war-ravaged place, we connect. We feel something. We act. If you bring in that child’s brother or sister, response diminishes. If you bring in their sibling and tell the reader that there are 500,000 other suffering children, the response drops off the cliff.

This is the point psychology professor Paul Slovic makes in his TEDx talk, dramatically titled ‘The More Who Die, The Less We Care’. And it’s a point that has huge consequences, particularly for the market research industry.

There are two phenomena that impede our judgment: psychic numbing (a tendency to withdraw attention), and compassion collapse (a tendency to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim).

In short, when we dilute an individual’s story by adding numbers and statistics, we also dilute the audience’s emotional response.

While the example above is extreme, it makes an important point about the world of marketing services: If you want to convince people, if you want to engage them, if you want them to act, you have to connect them with stories about individuals. Numbers just don’t capture the imagination.

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

That might be the first time I’ve ever quoted Mother Teresa – at least knowingly – but I don’t think anyone has expressed this rather unsettling insight better.

As a market researcher, this is particularly close to home. If there’s one thing the research industry is famous for, it’s our failure to capture the imagination. Think of just about any piece of market research you have been exposed to lately. Chances are, you suffered the effects of psychic numbing.

The problem isn’t data, it’s how we use it. We’ve become so slavish to big sample sizes, so determined to dazzle with our use of statistics, that we miss the sense of humanity and story. We’re not connecting with our clients and peers as people.

If there’s one thing I’d implore my colleagues and fellow research comrades to do – aside from watching Slovic’s talk – it’s to bring a little bit more humanity to the output, move the individual to the fore.

Because if we do, we’ll truly capture the imagination. And, we’ll get people acting on our work.

Market research can be an agent for good. But first, it needs to be an agent for action.

Matthew Swinson is the managing director of The Source Insight – a market research agency.


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