'An anthropologist, a zoologist and an economist all went to the UK Research Society's annual conference...' It's not the beginning of a joke, but the basis for a fascinating session on Wednesday watched by MrWeb's special correspondent Phyllis Vangelder.
Phyllis writes: I found the ideas and concepts discussed in the session led by Mark Earls on Wednesday morning quite fascinating, although I'm not sure about their pragmatic application to market research practice. Three experts in behavioural science outside our industry, an anthropologist, zoologist and economist, presented some of their work to shed light on consumer behaviour and human nature.
A former account planner, Mark Earls now runs HERD Consultancy and has written a great deal about our social or herd behaviour. He believes it is an illusion that people decide what to do independently - 'though it's an illusion embedded in our market research.
Dr Alex Bentley, Reader in Anthropology at Durham University, looked at the random copying model of transmission. He stressed that we are basically social creatures who derive our behaviour from others; our brain space has evolved to encompass human relationships. A sophisticated instinct for imitation exists across the animal kingdom, but it is fundamental to the human brain: imitation is a manifestation of social interaction. He pointed to the difference between directed and undirected influence, but how do you account for the behaviours which we don't pick up from anyone in particular? In a world of random copying it is very difficult to predict what will be successful: the only thing predictable is that something - the successful song or fashion - will win in the end. So, what does random copying mean for strategy? 'Light lots of fires', suggested Alex Bentley.
Dr Jens Krause, formerly Professor of Behavioural Ecology at Leeds University, used examples of fish behaviour to illustrate decision-making in groups. [Yes, fish - it seems we're not even a herd now, but a school - Ed.] Experimental studies with crowds indicated some of the dynamics of decision-making in groups: people can be led without knowing that this is happening and anybody with information of relevance to the others can become a leader in such a group. Social behaviour can be based on very simple interaction, analogous to swarm intelligence.
Economist Paul Ormerod, author of several bestsellers - Butterfly Economics, Death of Economics, and most recently Why Most Things Fail, looked at the role of market research in so-called social networking sites, but pointed out that these sites are not the same as social networks: their structure is completely different from the various networks people use to influence behaviour i.e. influentials; 'friends of friends' and importantly, random networks based on random copying. Ormerod introduced two acronyms: RYF (Robust Yet Fragile) and DILO (Deep Information from Limited Observations) and cited real world examples, from the FSA, newspapers, retail savings and binge drinking, to show that from simple questions, but better directed market research, one can feed into frontier analytical techniques to unpack the importance of social influence in a market and discover the structure of a network.
It was a discussion rather than a debate which followed. Mark Earls pointed out that all three behavioural scientists were more interested in networks than the individual. Jens Krause stressed the need to understand personality types within a network; people's willingness to be persuaded does vary. Research can help in understanding relevant networks and the differences between collaborative and individual behaviours.
MRS Conference reviews in full:
TV Scientist Kicks off MRS 'Unconference' - Sir Robert Winston's keynote interview
Lies and Statistics - social research; getting the truth from respondents
Nerd-Free Zone? - in-game advertising; consumer engagement, YouTube vs TV
Research in a Recession - winners, losers and strategies
Glasses Half Full and Half Empty - social scene; threats and opportunities to the profession
Virtual Ethnography - multi-sourced consumer feedback from social media and elsewhere
This page: On Human Behaviour - views from an anthropologist, a zoologist and an economist
MR as Storytelling; and Conference Conclusions - how was it for you?
All articles 2006-21 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.