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Rajan Sambandam

Rajan Sambandam

Chief Research Officer

Does the Bradley Effect Exist?

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The Bradley Effect is quite often mentioned in the media as we approach the Presidential election. It refers to the under-performance of a black candidate as compared to poll numbers. A good summary of various issues can be found here. A lot of the information about this effect is speculative or based on sparse polling numbers from other races which have led to questions of whether the effect really existed, whether it was seen in other races and whether in 2008 it is still likely to be seen. Perhaps the best study on this issue was conducted by Anthony Greenwald and Bethany Albertson the University of Washington. They used data from the Clinton-Obama primary, the most comprehensive source available and studied it using regression analysis to explore the existence of the Bradley effect.

Obama or McCain? Part II

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To read the first part of this post click here. In that we discussed how to use the available information to predict a winner in the current presidential race. While the polls (including the poll average) gave a small edge to McCain at that time, the other measures gave a mixed picture with the combined measure giving Obama a slight edge. Since that post a month ago the race has changed quite a bit. In this post I will revisit those numbers to see where they stand, how they have changed and what that means when you track such numbers. In the next one we will look at the impact of race on the race, or the so called Bradley Effect.

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.

Can Money Buy Happiness?

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This question has been asked for millennia and before any research was done there were three possible answers: yes, no, maybe so. After some research was done in the 70's, we had what was called as the Easterlin paradox which seemed to show that money and happiness were not related. More recent research from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania with data from many countries around the globe seems to indicate that people with more money are, in fact, happier.

Obama or McCain - who will win?

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A question that is of great interest now and the common response tends to be "who's leading in the polls?". You often hear people say that the latest poll from some reputable organization shows one candidate with a 3 point lead. Is that the best measure we have of predicting who will win the Presidential election? I submit that it is not and will walk you through the different measures available and what is most likely the best one. I say most likely because nothing predicts the future with complete certainty. Further, the aim here is not to examine the political strategies used by the candidates or speculate on who has a better ground game. We just want to see what is the best way to predict the winner, using all publicly available information.

Babyface CEOs - Good or Bad?

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Do you form judgments of others based on how they look? Very likely. These judgments are not just about commonly understood features such as skin color, but also about more subtle ones like the shape of a person's face. Research has shown that babyfaced people are seen as kinder, warmer and physically weaker than maturefaced people, as well as more honest and naive. Given this, are there consequences for a company that has a babyface CEO (or spokesperson) in a time of crisis? Will the shape of the person's face affect how the company is perceived and will these considerations have an effect on the hiring of a new CEO? These questions were investigated by some researchers in a series of experiments.

More or Less?

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Let's say you are a cell phone manufacturer and you have to make a decision about a new phone. Your clever engineers have developed several new features that could make your phone much more distinctive in the market. What do you do? Do you put as many features as you can into one phone, or do you introduce several phones, each with a different set of features? Researchers at the University of Maryland asked this question and conducted a series of experiments to answer it.  Surprisingly, their conclusion is that having a larger number of specialized products would be better in the long run.

What's in a Name (or Initial)?

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Do names have an impact on performance? How about initials? Would major league baseball players with the initial K strikeout more than others? Would people with intials C or D perform worse in class? Are people with white or black sounding names likely to be more or less successful in life? Interesting research has been done in both the areas of initials and names and the results are seemingly contradictory.

Insighter: Dallas Abbott

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Asteroids are space objects and sometimes they hit earth. Depending on their size they can cause great damage. Small asteroids can burn up when they enter the atmosphere. Larger ones can hit earth and cause damage directly and indirectly. The most popular reason for the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is asteroid strikes and the resulting global climactic changes. Okay, nothing new so far. Everyone can agree that asteroid strikes can have no to devastating impact. The next question is how likely are such impacts? To understand how frequently asteroids have struck earth in the past the traditional research method is to look for craters. Using this method scientists have estimated that large strikes happen about once in a million years or so. Then geophysicist Dallas Abbott began wondering if that kind of calculation made sense. Since about seventy percent of the earth is covered with water, wouldn't it make sense that most asteroid strikes are likely to have been in water than land. If so isn't it likely we have been underestimating the number of asteroid strikes on earth?

Books: Why Not?

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Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small by Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres

As readers of their Forbes column know, Nalebuff and Ayres have a long history of suggesting quirky and unconventional ideas. In this book they show us how, with easy writing and plenty of examples. How do you ensure you don't forget your keys? Did you know a variation of the solution makes European hotels more energy efficient? Can you buy insurance to protect against a drop in your home value? How nice would it be if you didn't have to pay your mortgage for a month - especially when the shopping season depletes your wallet. How can you get your health insurance company to treat your life as if it were worth a million dollars? Sometimes the answers are real world solutions, sometimes they are simply interesting ideas. This is a book about problem solving - or as the authors put it, problem solving with a purpose. They want you to not only think in new ways, but also come up with solutions that could help society or seed new businesses. Their approach to problem solving is based on two perspectives: looking for problems in search of solutions, and solutions in search of problems.

In a series of classic studies done in the 1960's, the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget showed how children can misperceive volume. When colored liquid was poured from a taller cylinder to a shorter wider cylinder, they thought the volume of liquid had decreased. These primary school children were using only the height of the container when making volume judgments and were hence making mistakes. Ah, you say, they are children and are naive enough not to understand that more than height goes into determining the volume of liquid in a container. Full grown adults would never make that mistake. Why, if such height based illusions existed, wouldn't restaurants routinely use tall thin glasses to pour your drinks, rather than short wide glasses? Well. 

Books: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

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The Reluctant Mr. Darwin - An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen

On the evening of July 1, 1858, six scientific papers were read to the Linnean Society in London. One of them was an idea independently discovered by two authors, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Neither author was there; the young man, Wallace, was in New Guinea collecting insects, while the older man, Darwin, was moaning the death of his young son at home. The idea, natural selection, had nearly zero impact and in the annual address given the following year, the president of the society said the past year hadn't seen "any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize" science. That was the official birth, 150 years ago, of the single biggest idea in the biological sciences.

Guns, Germs and Steel

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Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond

Why did history unfold differently on different continents? Rather than point the finger at racial or ethnic differences to answer this question, Diamond focuses on environmental differences and proceeds to lay out a comprehensive case. Four sets of factors, he argues, contributed to the world as we see it today.

Insighter: Teresa Amabile

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Do you procrastinate? Have you ever told yourself that you do your best work if you wait till the last minute? You may not be as creative as you think, according to Teresa Amabile the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. A leading authority in the field of organizational creativity, she has conducted intensive multi-year studies to understand the nature of creativity in organizations. One of the findings that surprised even her was that time pressure was actually an impediment to creativity. Even people who felt they were being more creative under time pressure are actually less creative.


In Mark Twain's classic novel Tom Sawyer is white washing a fence because his aunt told him to do it. In other words, it's work. But Tom soon convinces his friends that whitewashing the fence is a privilege and even gets them to pay him for a chance to try their hand at it. Twain makes the larger point that whether something is work or not is based on whether one gets paid for it. In this case work becomes a privilege when the worker has to pay to take part, as opposed to being paid for it. Based on this principle, two researchers have developed the idea of two markets:  social and monetary. When you help a friend move with no mention of money it is a social market. When you get paid to mow someone's lawn it is a monetary market. Where do you expend more effort and does anything change the level of effort?

Books: Moneyball

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Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis

How did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games? Fascinated by this question Lewis begins an investigation that takes him into an area of baseball that was shrouded in mystery about a decade ago. This was an area dominated by people who believed that to truly understand baseball you have to use numbers. Not just any number from a box score (such as an RBI) but those that were shown to be related to winning (such as on-base percentage).

Emily Oster is an Professor of Economics in the Brown University. Her research reaches outside the traditional boundaries of economics to larger health and policy questions. Her claim to fame is her disputing the Nobel winner Amartya Sen's contention from two decades ago that there were 100 million "missing" women, quite possibly because of misogynistic attitudes in developing countries.

Researchers at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the University of Waterloo have conducted some experiments with very interesting results about the impact of brands on people. They started with prior research that has shown that people modify their behavior in response to environmental cues. For example, exposure to rude words leads to people behaving rudely; exposure to elderly people made others walk more slowly. Even exposure (or priming) with a parent made people achieve more if they believed that the parent would be interested in their achievement, or if they were hoping to please the parent. The question asked by the researchers in this study was whether brands could have similar effects on people and the results turn out to be quite interesting.

Books: The Code Book

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The Code Book - The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography, by Simon Singh

If you have any interest in the history of codemaking and codebreaking (or more accurately ciphermaking and cipherbreaking ), this would be a great place to start. Singh begins with early codebreaking ingenuity such as the Caesar shift (yes, that Caesar) where alphabets are substituted for others, and the powerful technique of frequency analysis for breaking substitution ciphers.

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