Can We Trust Predictive Research?
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Can We Trust Predictive Research?

Pollsters and quantitative research, a cautionary tale.

Quantitative research has always been a fascination of mine, but also a point of disgust. The idea that we can use personal opinion research to predict human behavior is a farce. We attempt to remove our guilt (as researchers) for getting it wrong by claiming “it is within the margin of error.” We can’t live in the “margin of error” and therefore can’t trust predictive research. Bias is built into the questions, interviewers, interviewees, and analysis of any quantitative research effort and certainly in polls and pollsters.

So, let’s explore this.

Doctors use experience, years of study, clear understanding of the averages, objectivity and professionalism to make predictions about our life and death odds. Would you have any pollster in this country give you medical advice on the likelihood of your survival in an upcoming medical procedure?

Sure, doctors are wrong, and they pay a huge price if their practices are determined to be incompetent. But pollsters got this election so wrong, again, that the industry may never be trusted again. It is one thing for a brand to lose trust, but an entire industry is one sad outcome.

The key word above is objectivity. Doctors don’t want to give us good news on a prognosis in order to keep our hopes up for a win. Doctors don’t want to “spin” the numbers in favor of one outcome or another, they want us to know the truth — or as close as they can approximate it. We need more pollsters to see their jobs as objective professionals and less as political hacks.

Here’s what’s fundamentally flawed with quantitative polling research, in case you’re wondering.

Time: Asking a question on a Monday about a behavior that happens on a Tuesday might as well be decades away. The last piece of information before walking into a polling place can have a dramatic impact, hence we keep political signs away from voting locations.

Rational over emotional: A researcher’s phone call or email survey is about as emotional as a pet rock. These behaviors (voting) are not rational or contained with the check of a box, they are highly emotional. Who’s willing to disclose deep emotions to a stranger after a 10 minute phone conversation?

Context: The closest to context pollsters can get is exit polling and even those numbers have been proven off. If that tells you anything about how hard it is to replicate context, imagine taking a phone survey 6 months before an election and predicting a specific behavior in a small booth with a Sharpie pen.

But, by the time you’re reading this it is likely you’ve read plenty of the flaws with polls and perhaps made the leap to questioning quantitative research in general. So, what is the answer to trusting your quantitative research findings again?

Objectivity: Like your doctor, a good research team needs to have an objective seat when analyzing the research. If your doctor is “in house” then you’ll need to find objectivity in some other way. When it comes to the success or failure of your brand, objectivity can be found; when it comes to politics, it isn’t as easy.

Emotional over rational: it is best to make rational decisions with emotional data, not the reverse. Emotionalize the data to fully understand it instead of trying harder to put emotional data into rational constraints (aka small boxes and bar charts). This means visualizing data in ways that allows the team to see the underlying emotion.

Moments: It is 90 seconds in time, almost the time it takes to choose between two ripe melons or two old white guys. We can find so much in the moments when decisions happen and weave this with quantitative data. The best research is a blend of both qualitative and quantitative; knowing the weaknesses of each.

Though, the search for truth is a challenge if you don’t believe in it. Human behavior is a fickle thing, we are not robots and generally don’t fit into the algorithms of a standard data set. We need to have some empathy for the oddities and crevices of human culture.

If you’re looking to understand human behaviors, observe it, embrace empathy and real people in their circumstances. If you’re stuck in the circular reference world of relativism, this will be a challenge. Get yourself out of your own patterns, and consume the content made for others, and listen deeply to what it says. And, in true empathetic form, reserve judgment, just learn.

Enjoy the discovery.