I recently read an excellent article in the January 2013 issue of Research Live on the role social influence has on our preferences.

The authors - Colin Strong, Paul Ormerod and Alex Bentley - quote an experiment conducted by Microsoft, showing how strongly influenced teenagers music preferences were by a social component, in this instance the ability to see how many times a song had already been downloaded by others. The difference between this group and one that hadn't had access to any social influence was marked - amongst those that were "influenced" only a few songs were highly popular, the majority of songs received very low ratings. Amongst those who didn't have access to the number of downloads available, the preference spread was much broader.

The message was clear: having access to others' opinions had a heavy skew on preference. Mark Earls makes similar points in Herd and I'll Have What She's Having - we are social animals, indeed "perhaps the most powerful influencer on human behaviour is other people" as he states on his website.

What does the above mean for Market Research? Should we never ask individuals opinions on their own, as essentially opinions are a socially formed construct? Here's my take.

1. Methodologies should continually improve in Replicating Real-Life Situations
This may appear obvious - that we should aim methodologically to get as close as possible to mimicking a real-life situation or replicating a decision making process. However, take a concept test: ideally, we would need to understand to what extent an individual respondent is more influencer or influenced - and who precisely are those are that influence him or her? Take any purchasing decision: before beginning on the diagnostic journey, we need to establish per respondent if for a given category this is a decision they (believe they) take on their own or jointly, with somebody else, however loosely? If the latter, then we would need to find out who that person is, and ideally bind them in into the evaluation process. Curious if anyone is aware of such processes going on already, and if so I'd be interested in details on the cost and timing ramifications.

2. Research needs to be an Ongoing Exercise

In a world of ongoing budgetary-pressures, it's an odd thing to suggest, but essentially we need to re-examine the frequency with which we undertake all studies, including strategic ones like U&As and brand trackers, and ask if it is adequate. More than ever, we are trying focus our lens on subjects that won't sit still. Online influence is happening all the time, more and more people are reading blogs, reviews, ratings - the likelihood is that opinions are increasingly swayed more frequently, and that traditional tenets about the robustness about brand imagery may becoming dated.
3. The pressure to merge Behavioural Data with Attitudinal Measures will increase.

Most of us believe we have our own opinions, preferences, beliefs. Much of what the article quoted suggests, as does Behavioural Economics, is that we don't really have access to our decision making processes. Asking us questions is fine - we have an image of ourselves, that's an important piece of data - but we increasingly need to look at the behavioural evidence of the same person for a methodological reality check.  How long will it be before sampling methods allow us to easily match behavioural data with attitudinal data, I wonder? The two need merging sooner rather than later.

In conclusion: thought-provoking work coming from the broad area of Behavioural Economics has again made me appreciate the complexity of what we set out to do as professionals - understand and predict behaviour - whilst sensitizing to the fragility of some of our tools. 

It's potentially overwhelming: our subjects' viewpoints are fleeting, contextually derived and influenced highly by people who we probably haven't included in our datasets. Hmm.

It's important to remember that however complex the world is, however many cognitive biases we are aware of, Management is looking to MR to help solve problems, essentially to simplify, not highlight potential complexities that we don't have the answers to. 

To continue thriving, Market Research needs to outline the limitations and constraints of the methodology employed, and within that be bold and articulate in stating our views, recommendation Actions.

Curious, as ever, as to others' views.