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TRC Book Club

Curious mind new product ResearchI recently finished Brian Grazer’s book A Curious Mind and I enjoyed it immensely. I was attracted to the book both because I have enjoyed many of the movies he made with Ron Howard (Apollo 13 being among my favorites) and because of the subject…curiosity.

I have long believed that curiosity is a critical trait for a good researcher. We have to be curious about our clients’ needs, new research methods and most important the data itself. While a cursory review of cross tabs will produce some useful information, it is digging deeper that allows us to make the connections that tell a coherent story. Without curiosity analytical techniques like conjoint or max diff don’t help.

The book shows how Mr. Grazer’s insatiable curiosity had brought him into what he calls “curiosity conversations” with a wide array of individuals from Fidel Castro to Jonas Salk. He had these conversations not because he thought there might be a movie in it, but because he wanted to know more about these individuals. He often came out of the conversations with a new perspective and yes, sometimes even ideas for a movie.

One example was with regards to Apollo 13. He had met Jim Lovell (the commander of that fateful mission) and found his story to be interesting, but he wasn’t sure how to make it into a movie. The technical details were just too complicated.

Later he was introduced by Sting to Veronica de Negri.  If you don’t know who she is (I didn’t), she was a political prisoner in Chile for 8 months during which she was brutally tortured. To survive she had to create for herself an alternate reality. In essence by focusing on the one thing she still had control of (her mind) she was able to endure the things she could not control. Mr. Grazer used that logic to help craft Apollo 13. Instead of being a movie about technical challenges it became a movie about the human spirit and its ability to overcome even the most difficult circumstances.

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norm chronicles pricing researchJohn Allen Paulos has written a series of books about how most people have a difficult time understanding the meaning of numbers. Researchers who have relied on numbers to tell a story shouldn’t be surprised by this. Even basic statistics can be hard to grasp let alone the complex Bayesian Math needed for complex efforts like Conjoint. Even though most of our clients are quite numerate, they often present results to those who are not. If we are to play, and help our clients play, an active role in decision-making we have to overcome this problem.

One of the examples that Paulos uses involves our inability to understand risk. In their new book, The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger, Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter have tried to simplify things by boiling risk down to a simple number…the MicroMort. One MicroMort means you have a one in a million chance of death.  

On the one hand, this does seem to simplify often complicated actuarial calculations such that we can see that soldiers in Afghanistan face a danger of 47 MicroMorts daily which is of course far more dangerous than your chances of death in a car crash (about 1 MicroMort per day) but far less than WWII bomber crews who were exposed to 25,000. The use of one number certainly simplifies things, but if someone is not great with numbers it might not resonate.

A second means they use is to convert numbers to “MicroLife” terms. So for example, a smoker’s life is cut short by five hours for each day they smoke. Or my favorite stat that your first alcoholic drink each day adds 30 minutes to your life…sadly a drink every half hour won’t get you immortality since each additional drink deducts 15 minutes. While still using numbers, these do at least present them in a clear relatable way. Of course I wonder how many smokers realize they are deducting a year of life for every five years they smoke?

Finding the right mix between numerical precision and understanding can be tricky and not just for research agencies. The key for us is to find the right mix between numerical precision and a clear message. We can’t get hung up too much on things like “statistical differences” (as our Quirk’s Article pointed out).  Instead we need to focus on the decisions that need to be made and pull together a narrative that helps drive them. This certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use numbers…just that we need to put them in the context of recommendations.

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imaginelehrerOn vacation I read a number of books (love my Kindle) including Why Nations Fail by Daron Acenoglu and James Robinson and Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. While clearly quite different, one on what has allowed some nations to grow and endure while others fail and the other one about unlocking the creative processes of the brain; I took away lessons for my work from both.

“How Nations Fail” isn’t a business book. It is more of a history book than anything, but I saw parallels with what we are facing. The book details a long string of historical examples of nations that either failed outright or that saw some success but then reversed course. The central core is that nations that succeed over time always feature the same factors which feature truly inclusive systems. Meaning, everyone has a chance to succeed on an equal footing. 

The Art of Choosing

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Several popular books have appeared over the last few years on topics related to consumers, behavior, psychology and economics. Perhaps the most popular are the ones by Malcolm Gladwell. While most use academic research liberally to make their points, relatively few have actually been written by an academic. The reasons are twofold. One, you need an academic who has done sufficient research in an area that is worthy and of interest to the general public and two, you need good writers for lay readers. That combination is hard to come by -- which makes The Art of Choosing an unusual and interesting book. It was written by Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University Business School and deals with a topic we are all familiar with – choice. She has spent a couple of decades studying this topic and is hence eminently suited to write on it. The fact that she is blind makes it almost awe inspiring to read.

Books: Against the Gods

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Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein

Given what has been happening in the economy recently, this book (written ten years ago) provides an excellent foundation for understanding how we ended up here. In telling the story of risk, Bernstein focuses on how much people believe the past determines the future. The more we believe we understand the past, the more certain we are of what will happen in the future. Quantifying the past helps enormously in bringing certainty to the future. But risk lurks in the shadows surrounding certainty and underestimating it because of our blind faith in numbers and computers can lead, he says, to disaster. But what makes this book a wonderful read is that it really does tell a story stretching back millennia and is populated with exotic places and interesting characters. For someone interested in this topic it is time well spent.

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