Asking For Trouble: Understanding What People Think When You Can’t Trust What They Say

by Jon Cohen

In order to gain useful insights in market research, one must overcome “the illusion of interest.”

“At the very core of asking there remains one constant unerring truth: We cannot trust the response… When we ask people what they think of an idea, they focus. And the focus changes their response. The stark reality is that the revised response may not just be a minor distortion of their true feelings, it may be completely wrong, diametrically opposed to the way they feel about our ideas in the real world.”

The author presents the “wonder wheel” framework, made up of seven components to help interpret responses.

“By breaking the response down, you can engage in a more meaningful assessment of the ways in which people do, or do not, connect with your idea. The wheel gives you the impetus to explore further and gain a deeper, richer understanding of what people really think.”

Appeal. “The problem is the illusion that being liked in the world of asking is the same as being wanted in the real world. It is not… Rather than worrying about how much or how little people like our ideas, our goal should be to gather together a wide range of responses, both good and bad, and then try to understand why people have responded in the way they have. Whether or not someone likes our idea is not what matters most… Expecting someone to know why they like an idea is akin to asking them why they think a joke is funny.”

Purpose. “Instantly, when you ask people what they think, you share a vision, you are united. Your respondents embrace your idea as their own, they share your values and ponder how far your brand can stretch. But the togetherness is an illusion, no more real than protesters dancing with policemen in a post-Pepsi state of harmony and bliss… And the truth is, Pepsi does not stand for conflict resolution. To make good decisions based on other people’s opinions, you must be true to yourself.”

Relevance. “The illusion of relevance causes us to overlook the behavioral context in which people will experience our ideas… Whilst you can’t rely on what people say, you can rely on what people do… Since an insight is usually the realization of something everyday and normal, it’s unlikely to be earth-shattering. Insights are not grand. What you’re looking for is small and obvious. And because insights are small, they’re easy to overlook… Think everyday snippets of ordinary life, rather than the exceptional and profound.”

Impact. “When we ask people what they think of our ideas, no effort is required to stand out. Impact is easy and assured. In the real world, life is tough. The competition grows ever fiercer, our choices continue to expand exponentially and audiences become ever more distracted. Time and time again, ideas that succeed in research fail to live up to expectation because, in a competitive context, they do not cut through… Although we are planning a strategy for the battle ahead, the questions we ask potential consumers are still firmly fixed in the here and now… Ask about the present, think about the future.”

Clarity. “In the world of asking, participants are happy to read and reread the lines until the penny drops. In the real world, that’s not how people operate. They either get an idea or they don’t. Nobody, but nobody is going to take the time, nor make the effort, to decipher a message they don’t immediately understand… Clarity is immediate. An idea is either clear or it is not. The aim of asking is to check for clarity, and yet the way we frame and explain our ideas often creates the false impression that all is clear when it is not. The trouble is we talk too much… If you need to frame, explain or justify your idea, you’re not asking, you’re selling.”

Belief. “Asking encourages those being asked to use their heads rather than their hearts. In stark contrast to the unconscious, irrational drivers of behavior in the real world, rational response dominates in the thoughtful world of asking. This dramatic shift in emphasis from emotional to rational thinking has an important consequence: Asking for opinions artificially promotes the importance of proof… The need for proof is nothing more than rejection and resistance in disguise.”

Personality. “Everything has a personality… From product design to brand identity and from marketing communications to customer experience, every facet of an idea contributes to the development of a healthy and robust personality… Our personality elevates our idea above its functional purpose.”

Part Two is titled Truth. “In the land of asking, there is no such thing as the truth.”

“When we ask people what they think, the expectation of a concrete answer, a definitive number or even a clear understanding, misses the point and causes all the trouble. We cannot be sure of the answer. To believe otherwise lacks humanity and humility. When we make decisions founded on what people think, we do so in the full and certain knowledge that the asking is flawed. Our aim should be to work towards truth rather than to profess we have found truth. The asking guides us toward an answer, but it is not the answer.”

“Don’t confuse composition bias with confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is about hearing what you want to hear, for good or for bad. Composition bias is much bigger than that. It’s about asking, hearing, processing, and decision-making. If you let it, composition bias can and will shape every step of your journey of asking.”

Part Three is titled Good Asking Guide.

It is not unheard of for regular attendees of research groups to pretend to be someone they are not… If you intend to make decisions about the future of your idea based on individual opinions, you must have confidence in the identity of those you are asking… Ask real people, not impersonators.”

“We feel most able to express ourselves in the company of people we know and trust… Two good friends are just as likely to have differing opinions as a group of strangers picked at random. Crucially, however, they find it easier to say what they really think. And it is the freedom to express themselves without inhibition that provides the catalyst for true creativity. Conversely, amongst strangers, the less vocal soon lose confidence and retire into their shells.”

“Ideas developed amongst people who don’t know each other are far more likely to be safe and mediocre.”

“Should you feel the need to run a focus group, construct it out of friendship pairs—three sets of pairs maximum. Never talk to more than six people at a time. It becomes a tiresome exercise in turn-waiting.”

“Within every set of twelve respondents, you should encounter a mix of supporters, developers, critics, and the disinterested. Twelve well-chosen people will enable you to make wise judgements rooted in a sound understanding of how your consumers feel about your idea.”

“When you ask people what they think of an idea the response is never real, no matter how many people you ask… Rather than rely on large numbers of people you don’t know and will never meet, ask twelve people what they think, ask them why they think it, and based on their feedback, compose your truth.”

“Asking should last between five and sixty minutes. Informal asking tends to be fast… If you are talking to pairs of friends, you don’t need to warm your respondents up. You can quickly cut to the chase, gather your guests’ opinions and let them be on their way… Open questions are better than closed questions… Don’t interrupt.”

“All responses are equal, but some are more equal than others… Well-expressed intuitive responses are highlights you wouldn’t want to miss… Behaviorally intelligent responses are grounded in what people do… Behaviorally intelligent responses open our eyes to what is really going on and force us to develop relevant ideas that work.”

“You are far better off driving down an honest conversation cul-de-sac than speeding down the highway of delusion.”


Cohen, Jon. Asking For Trouble: Understanding What People Think When You Can’t Trust What They Say. Wonder Wheel Publishing, 2021. Buy from Amazon.com

Note: I have modified the spelling to appease my American spellchecker.

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