If you feel like consumers are lying, dig deeper and spend some time with them

Companies are often puzzled because consumers are saying one thing, but then in reality they seem to be doing something completely different:

“Every time we run a survey people are telling that they like to eat organic and wish to have more organic choices in stores. Then, when we offer more organic stuff nobody is buying it.”

Faced with traditional survey questions people seem to see themselves in a more positive light than what their everyday actions speak of. This is an annoyance for businesses trying to understand what the market wants. “Consumers are lying to us and messing up our plans.” This is a dilemma that consumer insights and ethnographic research often promise to solve - serving as a kind of lie detector revealing the true nature of consumers.

“We need to be able to distinguish between what consumers say they do, and what they actually do.”

This distinction is often emphasized as the talk is considered to be something merely symbolic and acts something concrete. Businesses are interested in concrete acts because they can potentially be connected to measurable transactions. Thus, the idea of studying what people actually do instead of what they say they do seems to make perfect sense. However, dismissing what is being said as an unreliable source of information makes little sense.

Crucial aspects of truth can only be understood by analysing the connections and discontinuities between what is being said and what is being done. People rarely intentionally lie in their responses. There are three key reasons to why people seem to be “lying” in their survey answers. These open up interesting and fruitful further questions to be studied in relation to what is being claimed to be done, and to what is actually being done.

  • We really don’t know what we are doing.

We all have routines and habits that we pay little to no attention to. Often, the people we spend a lot of time with are actually better at pointing out our habits than we are ourselves; and their remarks are the only way we become aware of something we’ve been doing for ages. This is not to say that other people remarking on your weird routines are always correct, but sometimes the perspective they have helps us see things we weren’t aware of.


  • We really don’t remember what we have been doing.

Surveys often ask if we have been to a shop or bought a product from a specific brand over the course of the past 12 months. Most products and shops are not – and don’t need to be – that memorable for most of us. We might have been well aware of what we were doing last Tuesday, but still not be able to recall much anything of that day. The more mundane the thing, the less it stays in our mind.

For example cookies are extremely important for the people who work in the companies selling them, but for most of us they are banal. Even if we genuinely try, we just can’t remember if we bought a specific brand this year or even this month. It really doesn’t matter unless it breaks the flow of our daily lives. As a cookie producer you might be more interested in understanding how that flow actually works, and how to become a mostly unmemorable - but often purchased - part of that flow. Business-as-usual can be a lucrative business.


  • We are not capable of doing what we see ourselves doing.

I see myself as a person who goes to the gym and runs every week, but I really don’t keep a count of it. I also see myself as a person who eats healthily. And while I do eat healthy foods, I also go to McDonalds, of which I don’t keep a count either. I sustain an idea of myself as a fit person with healthy habits even though I don’t consistently act according to my ideals. 

We all have ideals of things we say we do or will do. Yet for some reason, we don’t manage to get that “doing” to emerge. It might often be our own fault, but faults are also contextual:

“I didn’t have enough time or energy because I had to work so late.”

“It was just too expensive. It was towards the end of the month, and I was running low on funds.”

“Nobody came along and I couldn’t bother to go running alone.”

Reasons for not being able to realise our ideals, as well as the ideals themselves, all have a social aspect. Understanding how these ideas come into being, and how we fail to do the things we would value is much more fruitful than just understanding the difference between what we say we do and what we really do.

Sometimes the questions we get asked about ourselves in the surveys can also be extremely difficult. We are asked to choose from options which are really hard to distinct and rank. For examples, such a questions might go as follows:

“If you had to spend a few days with two of these people, who would you choose? And who would be the one you would least like to spend time with?” 

The answer choices may be: 

a) somebody who knows your family and the place you grew up in 

b) somebody who knows about other countries 

c) somebody who knows about new business opportunities

d) somebody who knows about high tech 

e) somebody who knows about nature and the environment 

f) somebody who knows a lot of different kinds of people.

This is an actual background question for a massive survey on brands and products in Finland.

This is an actual background question for a massive survey on brands and products in Finland.

At least for me this was really hard to answer. Somebody who is telling me about new business opportunities could either be the most annoying, or the best person to spend time with. The one who knows where I grew up – well, he or she is probably from the same small town I’m from. We might have some shared interests or none. Wouldn’t somebody who knows about new business opportunities also know about high tech? And aren’t there other more important factors to consider? What would these people look like? Would they have annoying habits? Should I just consider topics I’d like to discuss over the few days? How can I be sure they haven’t been lying when reporting they know what they know? I think I might have to spend some time with them.