Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fake It, But After You Make It

I found it painful to read that article in the New York Times Magazine. Yet I also found it necessary. The article, titled “The Mind of a Con Man,” describes how psychology professor Diederik Stapel fabricated the data in studies about priming conducted at University of Groningen and Tilburg University. The pain for me comes because much advice I’ve given to retailers is based on priming notions and because I’ve been trusting consumer psychology research conducted at those two universities.
     One manifestation of priming is “fake it until you make it.” If a retail salesperson pretends to be confident about the value of an item for a shopper, the pretending ends up developing genuine confidence in both the salesperson and the shopper. The confidence might be misplaced, however, resulting in fraud. The now-fired Prof. Stapel suffered from this by having pretended, with great confidence, that his data were genuine.
     “Fake it until you make it” can be helpful in retailing. A good body of research does indicate that if you put on a happy face when business conditions are discouraging, you become more likely to prevail. Optimism, as long as it is not wildly unjustified, wins.
     Still, in selling products and services, as most retailers do, or in selling ideas, as Dr. Stapel did, I prefer “fake it, but after you make it.” That is, it’s fine to put on an enthusiastic demeanor after you’ve confirmed that your enthusiasm about your store and your products is justified.
     As to the consumer behavior research findings themselves, before applying them, be sufficiently skeptical. When a consultant happens to give you advice rooted in research conclusions which don’t make sense to you, start out by asking yourself if you might have misunderstood what the consultant said or you might have been blind to factors the consultant discovered. If you decide you did understand correctly and you weren’t blind, then consider that what the consultant or researcher is telling you could be nonsense.
     Faking it at any point is tempting, to be sure, because of the likely short-term payoffs. In the New York Times Magazine article, Dr. Stapel gives the example of children like his ten-year-old daughter who, at Christmas time, realize the legendary St. Nick isn’t really going to be squeezing down the family’s fireplace chimney. “But,” added Dr. Stapel, “they like to believe it anyway because it assures them of presents.”

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