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Some thoughts on the ethics of market research and where I stand.

This is a mouse in a Skinner Box. These were used in the early behaviourist experiments where the rules of Stimulus > Reward and reinforcement schedules were worked out. Something which has got conveniently forgotten is that this mouse is standing on a grid through which electric shocks can be administered. Yes, Behaviourism was as interested in punishment as reward. Could you get more work from reward or punishment or from a cunning mixture? There has always been a chilling lack of compassion behind this kind of ‘investigation’. Some behaviourists actually started to raise their kids in versions of these boxes!

You would not be able to use these Skinner Boxes today without producing public outcry. Nonetheless there are many examples of experiments on human subjects. The most common of these are the Random Controlled Trials in pharmaceutical development, where one sub-group is given the new medicine while the others get a placebo or an existing remedy. How would you feel, if suffering from a serious or terminal illness when you found out you or your loved one had been put in the placebo group? For this and other reasons, RCT’s are now run in relatively remote places, like central European former communist block countries, where hardships mean that people will accept the inducements to take part in trials, whatever the likely outcomes and the press is not so intrusive. We worked with subjects of one such trial in Poland. Many were devasted by the withdrawal of the test drug – which had been wonderfully effective – due to licensing issues thousands of miles away in the USA.

Should the new medicine prove harmful, it could be disastrous to be in the experimental rather than the control group. But you do not know which you are in when you sign up for the trial – or whether the people running the trial will let you know if there are problems or benefits emerging. If it is a drug for treatment of Stage 4 cancer, will they switch you to the new medicine should it work to grant you extra months of life? Even if they don’t do it during the trial, will they give it to you once it is approved for having been willing to take the risk? It is highly unlikely.

In defence of RCT’s you can argue that they are a potential step along the way to better health for human beings.

What’s this got to do with market research? Well, with the new enthusiasm for neuroscience, there is growth in use of invasive brain scanning technologies like fMRI and EEG’s to see which area of the brain ‘lights up’ when we show people a product. My own family has endured more than 30 EEG procedures – and watched the doctors struggle to make sense of them – to the point where the only decipherable readings were obtained from sleep EEG’s (readings done when the subject is asleep). The idea that Market Researchers can ‘read’ these immensely complex encephalograms is frankly, ludicrous.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging is awesome technology. However, common fMRI side effects are:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue

Not to mention the anxiety that naturally accompanies the prospect of exposing your body to huge magnetic fields. I can understand that someone with a suspected tumour might be willing to submit to these procedures, but for the sake of trying to figure out how to optimize packaging or press advertising? Are we really that desperate to make a sale? What about our community and looking out for each other?

We have been here before. Following on from Skinner, social scientists became ready to fabricate conditions under which people could be tested in ever more extreme settings. The Milgram ‘Authority’ experiments in 1963 famously encouraged people to deliver electric shocks to strangers, following the instructions of ‘experimenters’.

In 1971, in the Zimbardo Prison experiments, students were allocated the roles of prisoners and gaolers, to explore the emergence of evil or brutality: so caught up did everyone become in their roles that the experiment had to be abandoned to prevent real damage and lasting harm:

“It was only when one of his colleagues intervened that the experiment was finally stopped. In total it only lasted six of the planned 14 days. Young men previously found to be pacifists were, in their roles as guards, humiliating and physically assaulting the ‘prisoners’ – some even reported enjoying it. The ‘prisoners’, meanwhile, quickly began to show classic signs of emotional breakdown. Five had to leave the ‘prison’ even before the experiment was prematurely terminated.”

What is my point here?

When you start to think about people as subjects in an experiment or game you quickly lose sight of them as human beings. This leads to what Fromm calls objectification – a state in which people are mere representatives of a larger group of people – a sample. In market research these subjects are objectified as representative of ‘consumers’. They show up to your sessions not as Billy and Sally but as users or lapsed users. Often behind a mirror, joking and sneering sit a superior group, representatives of the producers. The viewing room is notorious for disrespectful, inattentive behaviour.

You might ask why does big business want to pay for these and other experiments in market research? The answer is that business is endlessly searching for means of control and influence over populations. It wants to find the DNA of choice, it wants to be able to move you irresistibly to its desired end, whether that be a product, investment or service. And it doesn’t much care who you are, only that you buy.

I don’t think that market researchers and business executives are wicked or unscrupulous people. It’s more invidious than that. Its the assumption that its OK to adopt investigative procedures designed to find cures for terrible sicknesses to sell plastic stuff to consumers.

“We can do these procedures, we can measure behaviour, map brains, see nerve activity in the clinic or hospital, so why not use them for better business? Everyone else is doing it, so what’s the harm?” goes the justifying argument.

The point is surely that their use in clinics is for the benefit of the patient, the intention is to improve his or her well-being. In Market Research the point is to find out how to influence people to sell them stuff. One is surely a noble cause, the other is not.

I believe there is a better way. That’s why I started co-creating in 1991. I’d had enough of sitting with ‘respondents’ in fake suburban living rooms, I believed in making the agenda open and transparent, the invitation clear and specific – to create together for the betterment of everyone involved. That’s why I don’t like viewing rooms or spying on people for commercial gain. That’s why I won’t lie or pretend to people that things are any way other than they are – because that enrols me in deception.

Co-creation was not some fancy technique or cool process: it was invented to restore a democratic, consensual, level playing field between producers and their customers. It was developed to use dialogue, empathy and co-invention to excite and engage everyone. My hope was that by standing in each other’s shoes both sides of a potential transaction would become more engaged with the other. I still cherish that hope, though the re-emergence of the experimenters disguised as ‘neuroscientists’ and the enthusiasm for this kind of experimentation on our neighbours worries me that people will do anything to make a sale.

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As a psychologist, psychotherapist and research practitioner of 40 years, I've had the benefit of the experiences of more than 100,000 people around the world. They've talked about their daily lives, hopes, fears, ambitions and needs. These experiences have helped me to contribute to innovations from Beds in Business and the Fast Track for airlines to television drama and online communities. Specialties:Large groups, facilitation, application of psychological theories to commercial issues