Robert Heeg

Did you see the gorilla? It may seem a strange question to ask for a psychology professor, but Richard Wiseman is dead serious when it comes to people’s perceptions of what they see and what they think they see. He created several visual illusions and short films that proved that, as observers, we hardly ever see the complete picture, and in fact miss many important details. Some of his experiments became hits on youtube, reaching millions of baffled viewers. He explains why he came study the field he’s in, “most psychologists tend to study topics that are less relevant to people’s lives, like short-term memory or aspects of vision. My work as a social psychologist is a bit more relevant and interesting. It says something about what’s actually going on in people’s minds.”

He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and as such studied the paranormal and fringe-science (as documented in his book Paranormality). He agrees that there are similarities between the professional skeptic and the market researcher, as both are looking for the truth. “We’re into myth-busting. Whether we ask if people are going to do something about global warming or if they intend to buy a certain product, we’re idiots if we think people are going to do what they say. It would be very comforting if i could know what you were going to do this afternoon, it makes you predictable. but the fact is that you’ll tell me one thing and then do something else.”

At last years ESOMAR Congress, where Richard was a keynote, participants paid particular attention when he spoke about people’s capacity for self-deception, our inability to tell liars from those telling the truth, and our failure to predict even our own behaviour. For instance, he once asked a large group of respondents if they would pick up litter in the street. A large majority answered ‘yes’, but when tested most people simply ignore any rubbish on the pavement. “From a marketing research perspective, if you want to know if people are going to buy a product, how are you going to find out? there’s no point in asking them. How to collect meaningful data presents an interesting challenge.” he recommends that researchers observe more and ask less. “They should set up situations that are as realistic as possible, in which people don’t realise they’re being observed, and then watch what they do. That is your best test.”

Wiseman stresses the danger of taking answers in surveys as substitutes for how people will act in real life. Much of this is a result of social desirability. “We all want to appear as being nice, intelligent people. Ask anyone, and they will tell you they have a great sense of humour and are a caring person. But they will walk by a homeless person, justifying to themselves why they ignored him. If you base your perception of people on surveys, then we only have a bunch of angels on this earth, and we all know this isn’t the case.” Yet, he doesn’t feel that questionnaires should be made entirely obsolete. “They do have some sort of meaning, depending on your purpose. but they should just be treated with skepticism, whether it’s a political survey or a purchase intention study for training shoes.”

It’s not just that we lie to the interviewer, but we are very bad at analysing or predicting our own behaviour. We simply don’t know why we do what we do. Wiseman proved this by experimenting with the cover of his own 2007 book Quirkology: The Curious Science Of Everyday Lives. Two covers were printed, both featuring the same girl. in half the photo’s her pupils were slightly enlarged. In a survey Wiseman and his team discovered that men bought the cover with the large pupils more often, as subconsciously this made the girl more attractive to them.

Lie Detectors
It’s not just in face-to-face interviews that respondents present themselves as being more angelic than they really are. Even in the anonymity of an online survey, people tend to pose as being nicer or more sophisticated than they actually are. “They might be self-presenting to themselves”, Wiseman explains. “They’re trying to convince themselves of being something they are not.” He agrees that, as more surveys move to the web, a new dimension is added to this problem of misrepresentation. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an easy answer. “There is probably no substitute for observing people’s behaviour. What might help online is to look at reaction time: how long does its take people to answer a question? A longer period before answering, might indicate inaccuracy. If you’re self-presenting it’s going to take longer to think that through.” In watching and participating in Wiseman’s experiments, some of us may feel disappointed at our own poor perceptive abilities. The fact that we’re terrible lie detectors for instance, may disturb anyone involved in interviewing respondents. “We should be better than that over the telephone”, Wiseman thinks. “There is work in Britain showing that partially sighted interviewers prove to be better lie detectors, as they are more used to focussing on sounds and hearing the nuances in a person’s voice.”

Although he is known for debunking unusual phenomena, he does feel there is room for mystery in the world. In fact, whenever Wiseman demystifies a phenomenon, he simultaneously conveys his appreciation for such matters. This may stem from his early days as a professional magician, a trade that cherishes its secrets and trickery. “I have a great love for them. But i do think the world is a better place if we understand what’s going on.” The subtitle of his book Paranormality is: Why we see what isn’t there. In seeing ghosts, this may not have serious implications, but Wiseman worries about eyewitness testimonies in crime cases. “Thanks to DNA research, many court decisions are now overturned, but we may wonder how many innocent people are still in prison. It’s a terrifying thought.”

It’s a prime example how the truth can improve our lives. In fact, Wiseman was listed in the Independent on sunday’s top 100 people who make britain a better place to live. He’s part of a movement of truth-seekers, and his books are often mentioned in the same breath as Freakonomics and The God Delusion. Wiseman feels it’s all part of a huge shift in media consumption. “As the internet increasingly takes over the role of traditional media, people get used to the idea that any report needs to be treated with skepticism. They need to go out and find the truth by comparing different sources. I think that’s very healthy.”

The fact that he started his professional life as a magician, still shows. Rather than throwing a collection of dry facts at his audience, Wiseman presents his findings with wit, humour and a strong element of showbiz; a quality many research professionals may envy, as they are often accused of writing dull papers and impenetrable reports. His advice to researchers: “the reason that you’re presenting the data is that it, presumably, informs decision-making at some level in which case it’s all about simplicity. If you take any of the studies I talked about today, they each represent about six months work and have an enormous amount of data behind them. But as a presenter you select the absolute minimum of what the audience needs to know, and then make every single moment of that as engaging as possible. sometimes I use video, sometimes I ask people to vote; that’s very different to just showing a set of graphs.”

Professor Richard Wiseman is based at the University of Hertfordshire where he holds the Chair in Public Understanding of Psychology, he is also a best selling author of The Luck Factor and Quirkology to name but two.