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Science and evidence-based decision making has been the hero of the Covid era

Man whose face is covered by shadow

What role do insights agencies and organisations play in the factfulness of our society?

In a nutshell

  1. Most Kiwis would probably agree that if we want a better society and if we want people to make better decisions we need to respect facts. But how do we know what’s true?
  2. If New Zealand organisations want to earn the respect of customers, then it is time for them to stand up for factfulness.
  3. A good place to start is around three key areas: transparency, clarity and purpose.

In what seems like a lifetime ago in the pre-COVID era, I spent a weekend away with a group of friends, off the grid – no internet access for 48 hours, but plenty of wine and time to kill. 

After the initial withdrawal panic came a period of peaceful, fully in the room engagement with friends. Very soon the conversation turned to various current issues and a general putting-of-the-world-to-rights. This is when being off the grid became a challenge for me, as my friends made statements that, as someone who studies and surveys New Zealanders professionally, I knew to be incorrect. No, most people killed on the roads are not killed by tourists! But, without internet access I couldn’t show them how to fact check – and did it really matter?

My point is that while any right-minded person wholeheartedly condemns deliberate fake news and ‘alternative facts’, in reality we succumb to it all the time. I use my friends as an illustration, but we hear unfounded assumptions all the time in business meetings. For example, ‘most families are streaming on multiple devices around the home’. No, they’re not. Some families are, but not most. At a conference I spoke at recently I asked everyone to stand up if they had heard or taken part in a conversation to the effect that ‘no one watches linear TV anymore’. Almost everyone stood. Then I asked them to sit down if they personally had watched any linear TV in the last 7 days. Hardly anyone was left standing.*

If we want a better society, if we want people to make better decisions, if we want organisations to earn the respect of customers, then it is time to stand up for factfulness.

Even before Covid-19 we were cursed by information overload and misled by the cognitive biases that are hardwired to help us deal with it. Covid-19 has only added to this load as we learned what an R-number was and how data could show if we were flattening the curve. People saw more graphs and data visualisations in a month than they would normally see in a year. There were conversations about the validity of the statistics, about whether you could compare data if the information was being collected differently and even a little glimmer of wonder at what a log scale was. At least people were recognising that facts, not speculation or myths, would get us through this. Respect for knowledgable experts grew in New Zealand. Sadly, this was not the case in other nations.

Most Kiwis would probably agree that if we want a better society and if we want people to make better decisions we need to respect facts. But how do we know what’s true?  Because although people are not great at discerning fact from fiction or opinion, they do worry about the implications of that. According to this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, 73% of global respondents worry about false information being used as a weapon.

And, if New Zealand organisations want to earn the respect of customers, then it is time for them to stand up for factfulness.

So who should we trust to tell the truth?

The job to be done for insights

It would seem like a no brainer that insights should be a bastion of factfulness, yet there have been challenges from many quarters when research seems to have got its ‘facts’ wrong. For example, wrongly predicting political election results – but that isn’t the same as getting the facts wrong. The pollsters accurately reported what people told them – where they failed was not recognising the context of how people vote versus how people answer polling questions.

Let’s be clear, context is everything. Data doesn’t live in some special world of its own, it is attached to people – real human beings, fallible human beings, people who want to please and answer questions even if they don’t understand them. One overriding truth remains and that is that it should never be stripped of context. Consider the simple question: how many countries are there in the world?

Infographic that shows different measures for how many countries there are in the world

No one should look at a piece of data without a frame. A quote on a slide is as much value as a film review of “three thumbs up” without the full quote of “three thumbs up for the lead actor in this otherwise abysmal movie”. And that’s one of the challenges for insights – tell the whole story, don’t slice and dice until context is lost and don’t strip human beings back to single dimensional touchpoint interactions.

One of the jobs that insights is charged with delivering is to bust myths, expose pre-conceived beliefs and change organisations’ internal thinking to reflect real people’s lives. It should call foul on supposition that is not fact-based, or facts that are so stripped back that context is lost.

That’s one of the challenges for insights – tell the whole story, don’t slice and dice until context is lost and don’t strip human beings back to one dimensional, touchpoint interactions.

The job to be done for brands and organisations

So what role should responsible organisations be playing to make New Zealand a more factful society? A good place to start is around three key areas: transparency, clarity and purpose.

Transparency: Companies have always struggled with transparency and it’s only got worse as data privacy has reared its head. These days it’s much harder to keep out of the public eye. Last year more CEOs were fired for ethical lapses than poor financial results or differences of opinion with boards. Openness in communications and honesty in reporting are ways that we can restore trust in organisations so they can contribute to a society that can believe what they hear.

Clarity: Factfulness doesn’t take the fun out of life. We can still enjoy fiction and no one is going to call out brands for having fun. The signature of R A Bailey on the Bailey’s bottle is seen for what it is – no one is expected to believe that there is or ever was an R A Bailey. Similarly, Nigella Lawson’s involvement with Whitakers is understood for what it is – we don’t need to know what she is paid. By comparison, influencer marketing is under much more scrutiny so perhaps brands have to lead the way in being clearer about this element of their marketing.

Purpose: It isn’t just what you say you are about; it’s talking about the hard things. Organisations need to be brave and get behind factfulness. For example, supporting the facts about issues such as vaccinations to help people distinguish between fact and opinion, because if people misclassify an opinion as a fact they will invariably believe it is accurate, a truth. Or truthfully talking about issues they are dealing with around racism or gender equality.

Instead of hiding behind the façade of misinformation about climate change because it lessens the damage about a company’s policies and practices, for example. Organisations and brands have a social responsibility to support the dissemination of factful information and not to blur the lines of truthfulness by stretching the bounds of what they can get away with. Beyond their own messages, companies can play an active part in promoting evidence-based information that impacts New Zealand society.

Instead of hiding behind the façade of misinformation, organisations and brands have a social responsibility to support the dissemination of factful information.

Google it

For my friends and I, by the time we left our weekend escape off the grid we had agreed that from now on we wouldn’t just accept facts at face value – that we would instead dig deeper to uncover the true truth. It’s certainly a good start and it has raised some interesting discussions about how we all accrete bits of unverified information that are quickly embedded in our beliefs without questioning their validity. Confirmation bias and recency affect are two of the main culprits that inhibit our ability to use our rational cognitive evaluation skills to better effect. But we are grown-ups – let’s not surrender the notion that we have free will, that we can call ourselves out and call out others.


*In a recent TRA survey (sample: 2600 nationally representative) when asked what they liked doing, 61% of people said watching linear TV.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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