BIG MR Problem: Can we REALLY believe what people say?

respondent responsesLet us first get this thing crystal clear – people don’t deliberately provide false information during research surveys or focus group interviews. The real problem is that many of them try hard to actually conform to what they believe will please the interviewer. In other words it is the false belief system as to what an interviewer likes to hear. The problem stems from the fact that when people respond they do so by using the cerebral cortex – part of the brain that controls memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness – in other words ‘intelligence’ – instead of using their inherent emotions or instincts.

Therefore it can be safely assumed that the responses we get are thoughtfully articulated than what a respondent actually feels about. As observed in most of the cases – people are trying hard to fit in the definition of an acceptable response than what actually they truly feel about.

Now let me share with you an example as to the peril of ignoring the importance of respondent’s emotions in their decision making process.

One of the BIGGEST flops of  market research industry was the New Coke – a sweetened twist to the original taste of coke.

April 23, 1985 New Coke was launched with much fanfare, including prime-time TV ads. Company Chairman Roberto C. Goizueta proclaimed New Coke “smoother, rounder yet bolder,” giving an impression that it was more of a fine wine than a beverage. But public reaction was overwhelmingly negative with many people actually hoarding cases of the original coke.

So what went wrong??

The researchers were not able to access the ‘sentimental’ value attached to the original coke. Around 2,00,000 taste tests were done (mostly blind) where the respondents liked the taste of the New Coke but the problem is that the emotional attachment with the old coke was too strong and it was completely overlooked by the market researchers.

The result was quite obvious – disaster!

Let us first understand the anatomy of a human brain and how exactly it makes decisions.

According to the theory developed by Paul MacLean – during the course of evolution 3 distinct brains emerged which today co-exist in a human skull.

1- The reptilian brain – it is one of the oldest one and controls the body’s vital functions such as breathing, body temperature, heart rate. It programs us for two things survival and reproduction.

2- The Limbic brain – it appeared in the first mammals and it is responsible for what we call as emotions.

3- The Neocortex – it assumed importance in the primates and is responsible for the development of languages, thoughts, imaginations and consciousness.

Now understand that when a respondent is faced with a situation where all these 3 parts of the brain wage a war to control the final decision – the reptilian brain always win because obviously ‘survival’ comes first.

The reptilian brain is accessible only at the subconscious level and is the home of our instincts.

When you try to analyze the reptilian brain you will realize that it helps define the product/service at the ‘most basic level’.

Now this very fact is the root cause of the problem – first people use primarily reptilian brain to make purchase decisions but as it only evaluates the product/service at the most elementary level it forces people to share responses which they perceive will be liked by the interviewer.

Let me elaborate this point some more – a respondent makes a purchase decision about a product based on some very basic presumptions which many a times they don’t feel are worthy or important enough for the market researchers who are interviewing them.

It leads to the respondents scratching the cerebral cortex part of the brain to come up with a more acceptable and intelligent response.

This may be triggered by the fact that certain incentives are attached to the survey and the respondent perceives that they have an obligation to provide an ‘intelligent’ response and not some basic response which in the real world they will actually use to make the purchase decision.

Now it leads to the MILLION DOLLAR question – what should the market researcher do about it??

Simply put the researchers have to find out the basic building blocks of the purchase decision making process.

If for a particular market vertical a vehicle is perceived as merely a mode a transportation – it will be imperative to formulate a questionnaire to gauze the blocks of ‘what consumers perceives as fit enough for the survival’.

Simple mantra: Don’t seek complexity as decisions are based on far simpler instincts.

Akshay Kanyal

Akshay Kanyal

Akshay Kanyal writes survey research reviews on his popular blog Online MR. He’s an avid blogger, brand consultant and a content marketing expert, helping business owners to craft content that sells.

He provides content marketing advice to start-ups and innovation driven companies. He can be contacted at

You can also connect with him on LinkedIn ; Facebook ; Twitter


  1. Great post Akshay.
    I have always thought that the MR profession will finally be believed when we stop asking questions!
    Well maybe not stop, but rarely asking, and do more listening and watching first to know and understand our customers, consumers and clients. Luckily technology is coming to the rescue, we just need to learn now how to harness this opportunity and stop killing people with numbers and PowerPoint presentations!