Seeing Stories Everywhere
There’s nothing worse than having your research be a pile of numbers with no obvious story.
Or maybe there is.
What if every random set of numbers told a story? Or, worse yet, what if our brains could find a story in every random set of numbers, even if a story is not there? There would be endless stories in our data . . . stories everywhere . . . and they would keep changing moment to moment as new data got added with more time and perspective.
It is not such a far-fetched idea. Recent research published by two professors from the Kellogg and Carlson Schools of Management explored one instance of the phenomenon called hindsight bias in which we see past events as more predictable than they really are. Citing an article in the New York Times about this research:
One reason it’s hard to avoid this bias is that it mirrors how the brain operates biologically. The brain cannot possibly make sense of incoming sensory information instantaneously; it continually reconstructs, inserting meaning and making judgments very quickly, but post hoc.
“What consciousness does is tell the most compelling story it can come up with,” Dr. Vohs, the University of Minnesota psychologist, said in an e-mail. “That means to tell a neat story, where all the pieces fit together. This means that the past becomes a lot more ‘knowable’ than it was in reality, and hence hindsight bias.”
With our brains hard-wired to find stories in data, you would think that market research ought to be overflowing with compelling stories, right? So what’s the problem? Well, perhaps there are too few biological brains being put to the task. Our industry seems to believe that insights can be automated with instant reports and analytics buttons. There are too few people doing the (really interesting) work of fitting all the pieces together.
Our advice: Turn your data into stories by having smart, experienced people analyze, interpret, and report on your data. But also keep abreast of the academic literature so you’re always attuned to (and correcting for) the psychological and social biases in how we process and interpret data. Before you know it, you’ll be seeing stories everywhere, and they’ll be the right stories that really matter.