Asking is always the best way to obtain information from another human being. This was the main idea of a very interesting presentation given by University of Chicago Professor Nick Epley at the recent CASRO Annual Conference. The bottom line is that we humans wildly overestimate our ability to accurately “read the minds of others”. We think we are very good at putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and guessing what they are thinking or what they would do given a set of circumstances. We believe we can read minute changes in facial expression or body language. Or perhaps predict what people would do based on interpreting a brain scan. But, experiment after experiment shows that though we are quite confident of our “mind reading” abilities, we are just not good at it.

Professor Epley used a number of various psychology experiments conducted many times in many ways over many years to explain. One experiment in particular that I think surprised the 400 or so in attendance was something akin to the Newlywed Game. Married couples were given a set of 20 questions on a variety of topics and asked how they thought their spouse would answer. They were also asked how confident they were that their answers were correct. Well, confidence of correct answers was very high but the actual number of correct answers was barely better than chance.  Amazing.

So, it’s good to be a survey researcher – asking questions to get accurate information from a target market. While new technologies have made us more efficient, have allowed us to ask better questions at better times, and have provided us a means to provide more realistic context, it still remains that asking consumers directly is the best way to get the information we want.

Marketers who forego research because “they know what their consumer wants” are clearly taking a big risk. And there’s no question – based on the research – that the marketer would be very confident in his/her ability to know what the consumer wants. But, if spouses can’t even guess what their partner is thinking, what chance does a marketer have?