One week later, respondents were given a follow-up questionnaire that measured the number of times they had flossed their teeth and eaten fatty foods over the previous week. As expected, the flossing question led to an increase in flossing, and the fatty foods question led to a decrease in the consumption of high-fat foods. However, in both instances, when the question appeared to come from a self-interested sponsor, the mere-measurement effect was lessened, suggesting that students’ manipulation alarm was activated. In the case of flossing, knowing the ADPM was behind the question created a backlash: Not only did flossing not increase, it actually decreased.
The results support the idea that mere-measurement effects occur only when people believe there is no hidden agenda or self-interested party doing the questioning. Once they are aware of a possible commercial intent to persuade them to perform a specific activity, they are more likely to do the opposite. This finding suggests that most people answer questions about their intentions unconsciously — or “mindlessly,” as the authors put it — without knowing how it might affect their behavior. It is only when they detect an intention to manipulate them that they engage in what the authors call mindful processing.
Market research firms often wrestle with the potential reactions of respondents in determining whether to identify the sponsors of their surveys. These studies indicate that it’s probably a bad idea.
The authors’ most recent research on the mere-measurement effect indicates that it sometimes prompts people to act against their self-interest. For example, consumers may know that eating fatty food is harmful but still derive pleasure from it, or believe that flossing is good for them but find it a chore. Such ambivalence may encourage people to give in to a survey question’s effect on their behavior — even when the behavior is detrimental to their personal welfare.
This highlights a pitfall of surveys for at-risk populations. For example, just by asking about potentially unhealthy activities, well-intentioned organizations could actually encourage people to increase the same risky behaviors they’re trying to lessen. David Newkirk, “Best Business Books 2002: New Europe,” s+b, Fourth Quarter 2002.
Des Dearlove ([email protected]) is a business writer based in the U.K. Mr. Dearlove is the author of a number of management books and a regular contributor to strategy+business and The (London) Times.
Stuart Crainer ([email protected]) is a business writer based in the U.K. and a regular contributor to strategy+business. He and Des Dearlove founded Suntop Media, a publishing and training company providing business content for online and print publications.