Why people ‘lie’

So having just come off a hugely busy week, I finally got around to extending the thought process behind what ‘Satisfaction’ is and how you measure it.

Firstly, I think you have to ignore about 99% of what you find on the Internet regarding Satisfaction research. Most of it is in the form of White Papers written by companies pedaling their ideas. Which aren’t all bad, but don’t really form a body of coherent knowledge.

So I started with mainly academic papers and published books. There are literally a ton of these. And as you go through some of the very early ideas in this space, you get a feel for how thinking has changed over the last 30 years – from the pervasive use of psychological theories of behavior to a more business oriented approach linked closely to a resurgent Loyalty movement.

Not that Loyalty is bereft psychological analysis, but it seems that 30 years ago, when Social Psychology was emerging as a discipline, its application to business and customer interaction was very much in vogue.

One of the themes that kept cropping up, and a good starting point I believe to understanding Satisfaction, is the theory of Cognitive Dissonance (CD).  Or why people ‘lie’ – telling you something that doesn’t necessarily match the experience they just had.

There is a rich history of research on CD.  It began with Leon Festinger and his investigation into the belief persistence of a doomsday cult, and continues with reviews and essays on the 50+ year history of the theory.

Cognitive Dissonance impacts the measurement of Satisfaction because we justify choice.  If I use the same hotel chain, fly the same airline or drive the same model of car week after week or year after year, my behavior tells me something about how I should feel.  I chose to do these things.  No one had a gun at my head.  If I chose them, they must be satisfying.  Why would I choose them otherwise?

Now I am not going to pretend this feeling is robust in the face of bad rooms, awful service or a car breaking down every other day, but it is persistent.  Any time we hold competing, seemingly ‘at odds’ cognition’s, we seek to reduce that tension.  We justify why we use that service/brand.  It can be a story we tell ourselves – I hate the cable company but they have a monopoly – or we convince ourselves we’re more satisfied than we are – that bad service was just a one off, that expensive transmission reconstruction was the price you pay for owning such a cool car.  

These stories are ways to reduce the tension between what we do and feel.  The closer these two are aligned, the more content we are.

This has a tangible effect on how we rate the service we experienced or the product we bought.   But this effect isn’t consistent across all products or services.  Just as research into CD suggests dissonance between your self-view and your behaviours produces the strongest effects (such as making a truthful person lie), lack of emotional or real investment make the effect weak.  I don’t care to justify my pasta sauce purchase if it’s bad, I didn’t invest much time into it anyway.

The upshot of this is that we can ‘lie’ about our level of satisfaction if the time and emotional investment is large enough to make it worthwhile.  

I don’t quite know what this means for the best way to ‘measure satisfaction’ – but I’m thinking it has to be important.

6 Responses to “Why people ‘lie’”

  1. Aaron Gordon
    January 14, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    Fantastic post and undoubtedly a conceptual and interpretive challenge faced by nearly everyone that conducts or uses research…whether they know it or not!

    From my experience, the challenge becomes even more complex when analyzing consumers from multiple cultures as the cognitive dissonance variable in some corners of the world seems so surprisingly influential (for even FMCG products of low investment) that traditional research methods/designs provide virtually no evidence of the true sentiment in the market.

    More experimental and projective methods have shown some promise in such places, but by no means is the answer in plain sight. It may be the cynic in me, but the challenges of cognitive dissonance have often made me wonder if “the truth” is even attainable in certain markets of the world.

    Happy new year from the frozen tundra that is the Northeast.

  2. January 14, 2009 at 9:27 am #

    Good to hear from you Aaron!

    It’s a good question – is truth attainable? I don’t know either. Pile on group conformity and social norms and the problems gets a lot more complicated. Magnified again by the fact that it’s difficult to understand dissonance reduction on a personal level with out a good deal of introspection – which most people don’t have, or at least don’t apply to purchase decisions.

    Keep warm my friend!

  3. January 18, 2009 at 3:47 am #

    Hi Paul,
    So now we can continue those discussions online (just a slight gap of a decade :)). I always remember being disconcerted (during a marketing paper on customer satisfaction) to find that a study showed that more than 50% of B2B customers who were satisfied or very satisfied switched. I believe “satisfaction” is possibly semantically challenged (or maybe satisfaction was much stronger a couple of decades ago); which is why i guess many measures have moved to include recommendation as a core requirement.

    I agree there is recent research especially in behavioural economics that is very interesting. We know humans are not rational, that framing, anchoring etc impact on our choices. More critically, we need measures that include stated and derived factors of influence. i think it is less that we lie, and more that there is a great deal of inertia around our behaviour.

    Anyway, great to see you blogging again. I am now blogging at Kumeugirl.com, trying to work my way through changes in qualitative research, emerging markets and web 2.0.


  4. January 19, 2009 at 10:28 am #

    Hey Lee,

    Great to see you blogging!! I agree, it’s a perplexing issue that needs a complete redo in the mainstream. I’m not even sure recommendations are as useful as we think. With ‘sphere of influence’ and ‘friends’ definitions changing radically coupled with our new access to ‘gurus’ of all sorts – I think ‘friends’ are being replaced with experts and community inertia. We are more likely to turn to an individual who knows a lot or consensus among individuals who don’t.

    It’s an interesting topic. Let’s keep this conversation going and try not to have another decade gap :)


  5. February 11, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

    Hey Paul … have you seen the TED talk where Malcolm Gladwell talks about happiness? I have embedded it here:

    When that intersects with this idea of “social judgement” then I think we are entering quite an interesting time – where group sentiment is not only surfaced, but traceable. Brings the “wisdom of crowds” to a new level. Maybe.

  6. Paul Soldera
    February 12, 2009 at 8:35 am #

    Hey Gavin, yeah I agree. I read that post of yours and it inspired a few thoughts about what it means to be ‘happy’ and how we look at groups of customers. I had seen snippets of the speech before, but not the whole thing.

    I think you are right about traceable group sentiment. The most compelling intersection with what Gladwell presented is that groups can now self select ‘clusters’ quite easily. Technology allows them to do this and allows people interested in understanding them to follow along.

    But Gladwell’s comments about the power of ‘clusters’ was more of a history lesson than anything. I think we have moved far beyond simple segments in describing customer behavior. Scott Brinker had a great post about this the other day – http://www.chiefmartec.com/2009/01/the-most-important-strategic-choice-in-online-marketing.html.