Friday, October 22, 2004

Malcolm Gladwell Preferences Sip Test

Speaking of new furniture, it was great to hear Malcolm Gladwell speak yesterday about how we really don’t get our preferences right – we don’t know what we like and why and when people ask us, we say untruthful things. It’s nice to follow Malcolm’s mind around as he finds the world rather astounding and he’s a hail-fellow-well-met good egg who will take you along on such journies.

As I said, speaking of furniture, he recounted in great detail and with roller-coaster suspenseful ups and downs, the story of the Aeron chair which started as an ugly ducking and only barely escaped that status when Herman Miller and the designer asked industry folks, chair purchasing agents and other designers of reknown to tell them if they liked the thing. They did NOT like the thing.

They did not like the thing at all and all the king’s horses and all the king’s focus groups couldn’t manage to put it together that what they didn’t like about the Aeron chair was not the chair, but more likely the newness of the chair. The out-of-the-ordinary is hard for people to really get behind, get over, in the case of the chair, get into and sit with. Herman Miller stood by their chair and pushed it through to market nonetheless and that proved a good and steadfast attitude because it was one of their greatest successes and happens to be one of the most popular chairs of all time.

Gladwell also talked about the Pepsi challenge which was a marketing ploy by Pepsi to show the world that people liked Pepsi more than Coke, given the chance to try a sip of it from a cup in the mall, followed by a sip of Coke. There were lots of reasons they pulled this off, but as Malcolm recounted, if you go beyond a simple sip (and Pepsi being sweeter usually wins in a sip contest – but WHO DRINKS ONLY A SIP anyway?) the sense of a person’s preference breaks down.

In fact, he was talking about preferences and what we like or THINK WE LIKE and why. We prove to be highly unreliable “likers” and our preferences are fraught with confusion, u-turns and are in no way dependable.

All of the above was my version of what he said, but I do have some quotes that will help pin down exactly what Gladwell said. For instance, he found that “people’s preferences are extraordinarily unstable.” And most mysteriously, but proven by social scientists apparently, “making people explain what they want changes their preference and makes them go for a more conservative and less sophisticated choice.”

And the best part, his conclusion that we are very unsuccessful at interpreting the contents of our own hearts.

[Here's the audio transcript of Gladwell's talk on for your listening pleasure.]