Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken

This week, Oliver Truman looks at some of the honestly-held misunderstandings we make in everyday life, and at why misconceptions about the market research industry should make us sit up and take notice.

Sometimes we all make mistakes. As human beings, we’re loath to admit our failings, particularly when we think we might have got something wrong.

Only the other day, a friend was bemoaning the arrival of students back into Manchester for the start of the new academic year. Longer queues at cash machines, processions of drunken youths in fancy dress and buses packed to the rafters were just a few of his misgivings. “Bloody retrobates”, he muttered.

At first I hadn’t realised, but after a few seconds it sunk in. “Did you just say retrobates a second ago?”, I enquired. “Yeah, retrobates. You know, delinquents”, he said. After several more verbal exchanges, it became apparent that my chum had been using the word retrobate instead of reprobate for quite some time, possibly even his entire life.

As it was perhaps a little too painful to admit it, he gamely attempted (for several minutes) to argue that he was right and I was wrong. However, in the age of instant access to knowledge, a quick mobile web search revealed the error of his ways. The score was settled.

Throughout that evening, as several more pints of English Ale were imbibed, me and my friends at the local pub were now alert to the slightest error – whether linguistic, factual or otherwise. Other highlights in the inaccuracy stakes that evening included:

  • The use of the word vigorous instead of rigorous, as in “I like to check my bank statement vigorously”
  • An observation that the bearded chap exclaiming “Gordon’s alive!” in the early 80s sci-fi blockbuster Flash Gordon was “a bit like Brian Blessed”
  • Over-hearing the repeated mis-use of literally as an adverb in distinctly non-literal contexts, as in “He was literally beside himself with grief”
  • The assertion that the 1990s Channel 4 game show The Crystal Maze was presented by the long-deceased Welsh actor Richard Burton.

Errors of the retrobate sort are referred to by linguists as “eggcorns” – The term itself involving an idiosyncratic substitution of similar-sounding words to mean acorn. There’s a tremendous website documenting these everyday anomalies at the Eggcorn Database. Some personal favourites include:

  • “On the spurt of the moment”
  • “Mating name” (instead of maiden name)
  • “Cease the day”
  • “On a wink and a prayer”

In the world of market research we are, to an extent, also on the receiving end of popular misconceptions about our industry and the work we do.

There was an interesting article on the BBC website this week about those who respond “don’t know” in opinion polling. Aside from the thought-provoking discussion about how such responses should be treated when reporting survey findings, it was the comments section at the end of the page that really grabbed my attention.

Here are a couple of comments that made me realise just how misunderstood the market research process might be amongst the public at large:

“More to the point *who* is being asked? I’m 40 and I’ve *never* been stopped by someone conducting a survey, so from my perspective they’re hardly representative.”

“With phone-in polls, who on earth is spending money to phone in and say ‘Don’t Know'”

Recently on the radio, there was a phone-in on the subject of a recently conducted opinion poll and listeners were asked for their comments. One caller refused to believe the result, citing the fact that it was a survey of “only” 2000 adults. “I’m sure the other 60 million people in this country don’t think that way – It doesn’t capture that they think” was their claim.

On the flipside, us survey wonks should also accept that some of the blame rests with the research industry. Market researchers don’t help themselves when we talk to non-research audiences about sample sizes, weighting and quotas. Moreover, research also needs to be conducted in a way that is likely to engage and learn from, rather than alienate the audience. Unless the most appropriate techniques and methods are deployed, the credibility of the research process can be put at risk.

The comment below came from the comments in the same BBC article I mentioned earlier. I think it neatly captures an instance in which market research really doesn’t help itself:

“Recently, when interacting with a push-button telephony system of a major insurance provider, I broke my rule and agreed to participate. I was then phoned back by an automated system and presented with a push button survey. The point I wished to make was that I would not buy insurance this way. Needless to say, it was not possible to express this opinion as a push-button response.”

Show me: [searchandfilter id="13493"]