Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Power of the Testimonial

A while back a story was related to me about a someone a friend of ours knew who was in the market for a new car. It seems her old Ford van had been giving her nothing but trouble; always in the shop for expensive repairs. This woman perused Consumer Reports discovering that the Toyota van received high ratings for safety, fuel economy and dependability. But before making her decision, she asked a friend who, unexpectedly, strongly discouraged her, saying: “Oh my, I’ve heard the Toyota’s are nothing but trouble; I know someone who owns one and they hate it”.

So, even after all the trouble she had experienced with her Ford, purchased another Ford van instead of the Toyota.

This is the power of the testimonial and it influences our decision making both above and below the conscious level. We see it in every aspect of our lives, from deciding whether to purchase a lottery ticket to selecting a life partner. Though often mountains of objective data may be available to us, we quite often come to our decisions by emotional reasons – and often, based heavily on the power of testimonials.

We like to think of ourselves as informed, astute consumers; that our choices are rational and well thought out. But even after balancing pros and cons, the fact remains that we generally adhere closely to products or concepts that are familiar to us. For example, marketing research substantiates that customers overwhelmingly prefer Tylenol brand pain reliever over its exact chemical equivalent, generic Acetaminophen. Even in accepting the fact that the generic costs significantly less, the Tylenol brand is more often perceived as “better”.

As I pointed out in my review of Barry Schwartz's book, “The Paradox of Choice”, decision making can create stress for us. We struggle on various levels with the possibility of making an incorrect decision. Psychologists even have a term for how we deal with the conflicts of decision making: Cognitive Dissonance. Even after we have decided, a whole set of psychological processes come into play which we use to justify in our minds that the decision we have come to was the right one. Our motivation to quell the dissonance wherever possible can be very strong.

Because testimonials are so powerful in our decision making process, we frequently seek out the opinions of people we like and trust. An entire industry, advertising and sales, has been developed to prod our decision making and making us feel good about parting with our hard earned money. More often than not, emotions, not rationality, are what carry the decision.

The power of testimonials often comes to the forefront during our elections process. We tend to associate with people who act and think similarly to us. In recalling the most recent elections, how little political advertising contained any comparative statistics to support the assertions of one view over another. Where scant statistical comparisons provided, did we discount the “facts” from the candidate or position we opposed yet accept them from the candidate we already supported? It is more likely the case that political advertising serves to support the decision we had already made than change our view dramatically.

I recently attended another debate between a theologian and an Atheist; the topic of question; whether or not there exist life after death. From the theologian’s standpoint, the accounts of people who have experienced visions and feelings from Near Death Experiences (NDE) formed the basis of his position that there must be life after death. Many of these testimonials are quite compelling when viewed individually. But they remain personal anecdotes, experiences beyond our own and which likely have other origins that can be explained through medical and scientific causes. In decisions such as these, often the only basis on which we are able to decided relies entirely on faith alone.

The fact remains that our brains often are not very adept at separating objective analytical data from our perceptions, our expectations from the broader ramifications we hope will come from those decisions – specifically, how we will “feel” about the choices we make. Whether we notice or not, we rely on testimonials which are abundantly available to us.

After all, can 20,697 physicians be wrong?

24 comments:

Elisabeth said...

I suppose it's easier to trust the advice of a friend or someone we know, however limited and biased, than to weigh up a pile of conflicting information and decide for ourselves.

Perhaps after all, most of us are sheep at heart. Thanks, Robert.

crnelius said...

I'm not sure if I liked this post or not... I guess I'll wait until after my Father reads it and see what he thinks. **grin**

DJan said...

I know they sway me, so I try to stay away from testimonials and make my own decisions. But they do seep in, and it rankles me to think I am being manipulated!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Elizabeth It is often wise to seek the counsel of someone whose opinion we trust. Remember that sometimes people close to us can see things in a perspective when our own vision may be clouded by our own emotions.

Crnelius Yes, do have him mull it over then tell us what he thinks. (*chuckles*)

DJan It really is quite impossible to be completely rational and eliminate the emotional component. Our thought processes are naturally influenced by many factors we do not overtly recognize. In the end we need to have a way to accept the decisions we have come to, possibly defend them if need be.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

The other side of this issue is that "facts" can also be manipulated to support a particular position. Statistics are notoriously subject to this, used by those who have a stake in whatever debate we may be having in politics, consumer purchases, faith, or even dating. It is difficult to believe anything these days with all of the marketing and political targeting-so why not look to friends for the personal experience side of the issue?
Excellent discussion here, Robert. I will provide a referral to my friends who may be seeking a personal testimonial for a thought-provoking blog!!! :)

billy pilgrim said...

i usually go for generic or house brands mainly because i get so upset at watching the commercials for brand name products that basically are an insult to most people's intelligence.

why pay more for fancy packaging and slick ad campaigns?

Robert the Skeptic said...

BackRow You are quite correct. I think it was Disraeli who said that: "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics."

Billy sometimes the store brands are not quite the quality of the name brands; I have found that in a few products. But when you are talking about things like napkins, paper towels, canned corn, etc. yes the generic is the better bargain.

secret agent woman said...

I'm a fan of Consumer Reports - at least there is objective data to back up the recommendations. Anecdotal evidence is far less impressive to me.

Antares Cryptos said...

Cognitive Dissonance is precisely what I experienced when I chose to join the blogosphere. I'm still questioning that decision.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Secret Agent I would expect that of you. Still, I bet you do have an eye for "style" and I have no doubt that enters into your decisions as well. (I remember the purchase of those boots that time *smiles*)

Cryptos Don't question, then - instead, indulge in discovery. I can assure you that blogging has been an enlightening experience for me.

kara said...

The fact remains that our brains often are not very adept at separating objective analytical data from our perceptions

Did you list to the This American Life about the scientist trying to convince a non-believing teen about the existence of global warming. The perception won neatly over the facts because they were easier to handle. And all that explains is why Two & A Half Men is still on TV.

TechnoBabe said...

Yes that number of physicians and much more can be wrong.
Hubby likes to read reviews before buying a book or adding a movie to our Netflix queue. I would rather make a bad choice but it is something I figure out by myself by the description or a trailer.

Paul said...

Testimonials have an agenda, we must remember. I like to decide for myself. Testimonials have become an art form here in our country, because Americans like to have other people do their thinking for them.

KleinsteMotte said...

Your last line has me pondering. I suspect maybe it refers back to the life after death question but my intuition sends me to a different place. So how does my gut deal with this?? I buy what I like generic or not. Impulsively too at times. I vote for an individual rather than a party because he becomes my local rep. And I'm very defensive. That can interfere with my ability to maintain good friendships. There's a delicate balance in all off this.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kara Teen minds are unfathomable. I love the bumper sticker that says: "Hire a teenager while they still know everything."

TechnoBabe See, because I don't trust testimonials, I completely ignore book and movie reviews. Some of the best films I have ever seen were panned by critics, and some of the they raved about I thought were garbage.

Paul Indeed, it takes time and effort to gather the information necessary to make an informed decision. Much easier to accept someone else's take on the issue.

KleinsteMotte Well you have put your finger on the key indeed, it requires a balance of investigation and judgment, trust and skepticism.

As someone once said: "I don't believe in intuition, but I have a very strong feeling that someday I may."

Antares Cryptos said...

Did you find it? Enlightenment, that is.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Crypots Are you kidding, I can't find where I left my car keys.

PeterDeMan said...

I listened to the testimonials of 20,697 physicians. Look what that got me! Still hanging in there Robert, actually some improvement past couple of days; feel somewhat better.

GutsyWriter said...

Well that explains why most book sales are based on word of mouth. The older I get, the more I think for myself rather than what others say. I'm sure this applies to others. If not that's sad.

The Mother said...

Hence, snake oil.

Mary Witzl said...

I buy generic brands and embarrass my kids by loudly and publicly pointing out which things are cheaper and which advertisers for which products are manipulating them. When it comes to spending my hard-earned cash, I'll pit my shrewdness and skepticism against ANYbody's.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Peter I've been following, Peter. I'm glad to hear you are up a bit.

Gutsy Absolutely. Get your face and book plugged on Oprah and you will need a wheelbarrow to take all the cash you earn to the bank.

Dr. Mom Quite so, take two teaspoons daily and call me in the morning.

Mary A skeptical consumer is a frugal consumer, which is another way to saw "wise".

kiwi-monster said...

I'm reading a cool book you should check out called "Animals in Translation" by Temple Grandin. In one section she talks about how people (and animals) use their emotions to make decisions - basically we predict the future and then make a choice based on how we feel about that prediction. She relates a study about a guy who had brain damage which removed all of his emotions - and left him incapable of making decisions! Needless to say this has shaken my world-view a bit, since I like to think of myself as a logical person.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kiwi I am familiar with Temple Grandin, I believe Errol Morris did a documentary about her.