Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Right + Wrong: Logical narrative, Post hoc fallacy, + Confirmation bias

It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong. -Voltaire

"How will it contribute to sales?"

That's a fair question in any business context. Of course the answer isn't always easy...or direct. For instance, how will deploying a web based game contribute to sales of a consumer packaged good?

One answer might take the form of a logical narrative: 

"By providing an entertaining way to educate prospects on the product's differentiating qualities, they will be more likely to choose the product versus competitive products whose qualities they don't understand."  

The logical narrative relies on bold...each of which is a testable proposition...through research, prototyping, or limited launch.

Another form of an answer might look like this:

"We launched a web game for a different client and sales increased 5%." 

This answer appears valid. It reflects an actual experience. It includes data (in bold) about sales. It can't be tested, though, because it occurred in the past.

But which answer is better?

It depends...on the degree of bias and fallacy you are willing to tolerate.

Say What?

Post Hoc fallacy assigns causative explanations to events based on their sequence...evaluated after they have occurred. I got a headache, then it headache predicts rain.  It is an entirely natural human quality that probably saved our ancestors from wild animals or starvation or insanity. Entire belief systems can be built around post hoc fallacies that assign explanations to patterns we are hard wired to see...that doesn't make them true however.  When challenged by new data that doesn't fit the pattern previously identified, post hoc fallacies contact our confirmation bias filters to prevent further challenge to our beliefs...and ability to learn.

Confirmation bias is the innate human quality of seeking confirmation for what we believe. Prioritizing data that supports our predefined beliefs and discounting that which challenges it.  It too is hard wired. One must struggle mightily to recognize it, let alone overcome it. Sometimes it's simply not worth the effort. But in answering questions like the one above about impacts on sales, it can be dangerous for marketers and their clients. 

Because when we let only our biases drive what we believe about marketing, we miss the opportunity for meaningful insights. More importantly, we miss the opportunity to discover what we don't know. And ignorance has never been a marketing imperative. 

So what?

So let's look at the the answers above. If one prefers the second, data-driven answer to the original question, one must be comfortable with the degree to which confirmation bias and post hoc fallacy combine to discount challenges to the cause and effect gaps in the statement: that the game was responsible for the sales lift...that the other client situation is similar to this client, etc.

In one prefers the first, logical narrative answer, one must be comfortable with the idea that the assertions can and should be tested, that the purpose of a test is to challenge assumptions, and that the outcomes of the test are in doubt. This can seem daunting in the context of being expected to have answers.

As marketers, though, we should step up to uncertainty. We are uniquely positioned to recognize the bias and logical fallacies on which so much of human experience is built...including marketing. We can insist on the discipline of controlled experimentation in our efforts. The kind where we try things out in a planned approach that identifies and controls for the effects of bias and fallacy in our recommendations...and in the evaluation of the best of our abilities. 

In that regard, the logical narrative approach to answering questions about marketing's 'impact on sales' provides an alternative approach to expectation setting. It isn't easy, because it requires an acknowledgement of uncertainty.  And in an age of self evidence that can be a tall order (here). 

It may also increase our discomfort level (one of our themes for 2009, here),  but it has the benefit of getting us closer to a fact-based marketing reality and away from perceptions that marketing relies on magical thinking or assertions alone.

Because in the new marketing economy, it can be dangerous to be wrong.


No comments:

Post a Comment