Speaking truth to power sounds noble. Telling a client they have an ugly baby? Perhaps bit less lofty. But however you spin it, marketing research sometimes involves bursting the bubbles of excited, creative marketers. Marketing research best practices involves honesty from marketing researcher and client alike.
Yet who among us truly wants to learn something that contradicts what we already strongly believe? Sure, we all talk about “insights” and “ah hahs” – those moments of revelation that change how we view the problem at hand, the products we are creating, or the people to whom we hope to sell.
Everyone has ways of defending their egos – sometimes marketers close one eye, squint at the research results, and come up with better rationalizations to move ahead in the same direction they had planned all along. And researchers often aid in this process, by pointing out the happy results that make the client feel good and helping to explain away those that don’t.
Making Up the Data
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote a fascinating piece in the April 26, 2013 New York Times about an academic social psychology researcher who took this common wish – to have the things one thinks confirmed as true – one step further. He built a 15-year, award-winning professorial career in the Netherlands on completely fraudulent research. Yep, he just made up the data.
At first, in his PhD studies, he did actual social science research. He found it to be messy and inexact, and it gained him little attention. After becoming a professor, one day he found a way to solve those problems: he figured out what the most appealing results would be, the realistic parameters that should exist if he were to actually do the experiment or observation, and then he typed up his own, fake, data sets.
His Fraud Worked for a Time
His elegant findings gained him attention and prestige. He made sure the data, while seemingly varied and statistically plausible, resulted in unquestionably strong results. He started with the literature as it was, developed an experiment to find the next plausible result, the one everyone wanted to be true and that seemed intuitively right, and then he “confirmed” it through social science.
Great Research May Uncover Something New
This isn’t a blog post about ethics in research, although I sometimes, shockingly, hear about researchers who fake quotes and the like. It’s about human nature – the common wish to simply find support for what we already believe to be true. If research is used this way, merely to confirm our gut, and we aren’t open to learning things that are possibly uncomfortable, then we perpetuate the same type of environment that helped to make Dr. Diederik Stapel so successful. Whereas accepting the, sometimes messy, findings of our market studies might help us gain some of the knowledge we need to respond to the world as it is, not as we wish it were.
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