How to learn what people really think, want and do

by | Sep 10, 2017 | Blog | 0 comments

Want to know what you or others will do?

You can ask, but recognize that self-reports are exceptionally inaccurate. We have a horrible time predicting our future behavior. We also have a tendency to lie to ourselves, friends, family, doctors, surveys, and anyone else about our past, current and future actions.

It’s not that we’re intentionally deceitful. It’s just that we’re not all that conscious about our state of mind and behavior. Also, we’re lousy at predicting the future, especially our own.

Thanks to the social sciences, neuroscience and data science, it’s possible to gather more accurate insights and make better decisions.

Consider these three alternatives:  

1.Observe people working in their regular environment and ask them questions, as cultural anthropologists do. For example, let’s say you’d like to begin your US-based staff meetings earlier in the day to make it easier for team members in Europe to join during their work day. Rather than survey everyone to find a time that works, you could first observe when your US team members arrive at work. How many are coming to the 9:30 am meeting from the employee entrance carrying their breakfast and their papers, or have they already been in their work area for a couple of hours?

Knowing your US team members’ morning habits as well as their family situation will help you determine how you can help them adjust to a new meeting time, which they may or may not like. And you may get better cooperation – and compliance — if you experiment. For instance, you may want to try a 6:30 am call that your US employees make from home, or an 8 am call from the car after they’ve dropped off children at school or day care.

Being observant and thoughtful can help you arrive at workable solutions. For more on this topic, check out Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists.

2. Monitor brain activity, or ask a neuroscientist to. Thanks to technology that scans human brains, neuroscientists can detect increased activity in various brain regions based on stimulation. For example, a research team at UCLA noticed that the activation of the medial prefrontal cortex of some individuals watching and listening to communication about the importance of using sunscreen. The following week these individuals increased their use of sunscreen even though they themselves hadn’t predicted they would. This study, as explained in this article, shows that it’s possible that Neuroscientists can predict your behavior better than you can.

As the cost of the technology drops, we may be able to conduct “neural focus groups” in which we can monitor the brain activity of individuals watching and listening to messages to determine which ones are most persuasive.  

3. Be open to non-traditional sources of data as well as the digital trails that people leave behind, especially in Google searches, and evaluate them. To jump start your analysis on a topic, you can do a Google search. You’ll get some ideas as well as see how popular the topic is. This is fast and inexpensive, but not necessarily useful. For example, when writing this post, I Googled “best time to schedule a meeting” and learned that Tuesdays at 2:30 PM Is the Best Time to Schedule a Meeting. (This time isn’t appropriate for a US-Europe team but it could be an appropriate time for a team in the same time zone.)

Nonetheless, big data, new data and the internet, especially Google searches, can provide amazing insights, as I learned in this fascinating, fun new book Everybody Lies by the researcher Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

The author, who’s a former Google data scientist, explains how Google searches can be characterized as “digital truth serum.” He also describes how you can reimagine data as bodies, words and pictures to help answer questions.

For example, regarding data as body parts and organs, one of my favorite stories in the book is about American Pharoah, the mild-mannered, unassuming yet handsome race horse. The left ventricle of the 2015 Triple Crown winner ranks in the 99.61 percentile. His other internal organs are large too. This made the head of EQB, which combines big data analytics with cutting edge sports medicine and traditional horsemanship, predict that American Pharoah would be the best horse of the year and quite possibly the decade.

(My husband and I got to meet American Pharoah in Lexington, KY last year after he had retired from racing and started his new career as a studhorse.)

You may not want a career as a data scientist, neuroscientist to cultural anthropologist; however, consider the techniques these professions use the next time you’re trying to understand what people want to do.

Who knows what you’ll learn?  


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