2017: Through the Looking Glass

8 Feb

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

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“I daresay you haven’t had much practice… why, sometimes, I’ve
believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass,

There really is no polite way to say this: the world is awash with bullshit. We can dress this up in all the ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ packaging we want, but it’s much more useful not to mince our words. After all, one of the golden rules of psychology is that ‘to name it is to tame it’. Working in the world of research and policy, we confront this problem every day. We see it in ‘voodoo polls’ that take on the appearance of science without any of the substance. And we see it in ‘experts’ who clearly have no idea about how little they really know.

Facts may be stubborn things but assertions are clearly more of a push-over. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr put it, “certitude is not the test of certainty”. The key is not to dismiss all research and evidence but to be clear about when you can trust it.

Back in the mid nineties Carl Sagan compiled a ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ that remains a great resource for anyone dealing with claims made from evidence. It also outlines a number of the common rhetorical tricks that get rolled out to shift your attention away from the quality of the research. There is a version of that article on Research First’s website (here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/uploads/The%20Fine%20Art%20of%20Baloney%20Detection.pdf), and we have a shorter, easier to use, checklist version you can use too (here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/uploads/files/users/30375/RF_Research_Ninja.pdf).

But fact-checking is only part of the way to hold back the tide of bullshit. As well as being able to check the quality of the evidence used to support an argument, we need to be able to interrogate the quality of thinking that sits behind it. This is the notion of ‘critical thinking’, which is the art of thinking about thinking. What critical thinking often shows us is that the weakest part of an argument is not the facts it ends up with but the assumptions it starts with. There is nothing hard about critical thinking, but it is a skill that needs instruction and practice. Given how often we see the need for this in the organisations we work with, we now offer a range of seminars in how to improve your critical thinking (see a list here: http://www.researchfirst.co.nz/index.php?page=seminars).

It may be unfashionable to say this but I can’t help thinking that the best way to beat back the wave of bullshit washing over the world is by encouraging more students to study the liberal arts and the humanities. These subjects let us see where our current ideas fit within a historical and philosophical context, while training graduates how to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. In this regard, these disciplines aren’t about anything in particular so much as a way to think about everything. And make no mistake, it is very much a ‘discipline’. These subjects teach how to ask difficult questions and mistrust easy answers. They also show how every solution creates new problems. As Seneca said, nobody was ever wise by chance.

If it’s true that many of living in the West have ‘lost faith in our own future’ (or, in 2017, think they are about to) then it’s time to rethink that future. To do that, what we need are people who can call that future to a higher standard. Which means, now more than ever, we need more Arts graduates.

 

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

Internships: time consuming but worth it

19 Dec

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The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Alex Lyall, PRINZ Student Ambassador at University of Canterbury.

Though internships aren’t exactly how they are in the movies – I have not once followed my boss around as they eccentrically dictate to me their exotic coffee orders – they’re still jobs which eat up an enormous amount of time in your day.  And as all students know, no day is filled with empty hours as it is. We all have about a billion other commitments, on top of socialising and sleeping.

It’s probably worth asking why I, or anybody, would take on an internship with a schedule as crammed as that. Why add more work when you’re up to your neck already? Well, I realised I needed to work harder after attending the PRINZ Young Professionals event with a panel fitted with young public-relations professionals with 1-5 years experience. They were inspiring (and I don’t use that word lightly) not just in their successes but through their words too. Their bluntness alone made attending the panel worth it. The key quote of the night was this:

“Even though you have a degree, so does everyone else.”

Basically, once you begin looking for jobs you can’t rely on your degree alone to land you that dream job. Or any job, for that matter.

I honestly hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made sense. It bugged me for the rest of the night as gaining a degree was all I had been aiming for. As if from a cheesy movie, the next day an invitation arrived in my university inbox looking for internship applications. I put myself forward with the panellist’s words in mind.

My conclusion from three months of interning is that internships are worth it. Even though time has often seemed restrictive, their importance has revealed itself in several ways.

First of all, internships can lead onto better things.

My internship originally asked for me to perform for three months, that has since extended and I am now able to be with my organisation for as long as I like. Internships provide opportunity: the chance for you to really go and prove yourself. It is not uncommon at all for employers to be so wooed by your work that they end up offering you permanent employment.

Even if employment doesn’t eventuate, internships are fantastic opportunities to learn on the job. Some internships provide this in a setting that is calm, encouraging and fun – mine very much falling into this category. Calmness especially has been important for mine. Once when writing a weekly review, I came across some news on the internet about a certain rapper facing criticism. It seemed too juicy to leave out however the subject matter seemed a little ill-fitting for my organisation’s aim. I grappled with its inclusion, ultimately deciding to put it in. Wrong move. I got an email a few days later asking for its removal. Hindsight is 20/20 but you live and learn. It was one lesson I still refer to when making decisions – trust your instinct. In this case, I knew it was wrong to include in my article but that other, more troublemaking, side got to me. Often, those words of advice from your supervisor can be an invaluable reward. You will realise for yourself that it’s affordable to make those mistakes now while you’re young and learning and not after you’ve started your first proper job.

Secondly, internships by design exist in order to give you a wee taste. This taste can influence you, before it’s too late, as to whether or not you feel that working in this line of work is right for you. For me, three months was enough for me to realise that I enjoyed music journalism a lot and that it was definitely something I would want to pursue further. Then on a side note, while some don’t offer payment they make up for it in freebies. In the music journalism world, albums, downloads and press passes are frequent. It’s the kind of currency that gets you involved in the first place.

For me, interning has been like riding my bike with the training wheels still on. It’s this stage where I’m doing something really exciting, and the support is there if I happen to fall. You mustn’t neglect the other busy parts of your life, but give it a go and see how far you can ride.

Image credit: @Istock

 

How Did the Polls get the US Elections so Badly Wrong?

14 Dec

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

USA Map Vote and Elections USA Patriotic Icon Pattern

The day after Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election, The Dominion Post ran a headline saying ‘WTF’. It left off the question mark so not to cause offence (and asked us to believe that they really meant ‘Why Trump Flourished’). But the question lingers regardless.

For those of us in the research business, WTF? was quickly followed by ‘how did the polls get it so wrong?’.

It’s a good question. And coming hot on the heels of the polls’ failure to predict Brexit, an important one.

People have attempted to answer this question in a number of ways, and each of them tells us something a little different about the nature of polling, the research industry, and voters in general.

The first response might be called the ‘divide and conquer’ argument. This is the one that says not all the polls got the election result wrong. The USC/LA Times poll, for instance, tracked a wave of support for Trump building and predicted Trump’s victory a week out. Similarly, the team at Columbia University and Microsoft Research also predicted Trump’s victory. But this seems to me to be a disingenuous argument because most polls clearly got the result wrong. And with enough polls running, some of them have to give the contrary view. Another way to think about this is that even a broken watch is right twice a day.

There is a variation on this argument that we might call ‘divide and conquer 2.0’. This is the argument that says people outside of the industry misunderstood what the polls actually meant. The best example here might be Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com. Before the election 538 gave Trump about a thirty percent chance of winning. To most people, that sounds like statistical short hand for ‘no chance’. But to statisticians, it means that if we ran the election ten times, Trump would win three of them. In other words, Silver was saying all along that Trump could win. Just it was more likely that Hilary would. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb might put it, the problem here is that non-specialists were ‘fooled by randomness’. There is merit in this argument but it seems too much of ‘a bob each way’ position (and note how it shifts the fault from the pollsters to the pundits).

The next argument might be called ‘duck and run’. This is the argument that says the fault lies with the voters themselves because they probably misrepresented their intentions. Pollsters typically first ask people if they intend to vote, and only then who they’re going to vote for. But, of course, there’s no guarantee the answer to either is accurate. This seems to be the explanation that David Farrar (who is one of New Zealand’s most thoughtful and conscientious pollsters) reached for when approached by Stuff. Given how many Americans didn’t vote in the election, expect to hear this argument often. But surely all this really means is that the pollsters asked the wrong questions, or asked them of the wrong people?

A variation on this ‘duck and run’ argument is that polls are at their least effective where a tight race is being run. On election night nearly 120 million votes were cast but the difference between the two candidates was only about 200,000 (or less than one third of one percent). It could be that no polling method is sufficiently precise to work under these conditions. If you want to try this line of argument in the office, award yourself a bonus point for referring to the ‘bias-variance dilemma’.

But I think all of these arguments are a kind of special pleading. Worse than that, much of what the industry is now saying looks like classic hindsight bias to me. This is also known as the ‘I-Knew-It-All-Along Effect’, which describes the tendency, after something has happened, to see the event as having been inevitable (despite not actually predicting it). While it’s easy to be wise after the fact, the point of polling is to provide foresight, not hindsight.

And no matter how well intentioned any of these arguments might be, it’s hard not to think we’ve seen them all before. Philip Tetlock’s masterful Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? reports a 20 year research project tracking predictions made by a collection of experts. These predictions were spectacularly wrong but even more dazzling was the experts’ ability to explain away their failures. They did this by some combination of arguing that their predictions, while wrong, were such a ‘near miss’ they shouldn’t count as failure; that they made ‘the right mistake’; or that something ‘exceptional’ happened to spoil their lovely models (think ‘black swans’ or ‘unknown unknowns’). In other words, the same arguments that we’re now seeing the polling industry rolling out to explain what happened with this election.

For me, all of these arguments miss the point and distract us from the real answer. The pollsters (mostly) got the election wrong because the future – despite all our clever models and data analytics – is fundamentally uncertain. Our society loves polls because we crave certainty. It’s the same reason we fall for the Cardinal Bias, the tendency to place more weight on what can be counted than on what can’t be. But certainty will always remain out of reach. What Trump’s victory really teaches us is that all of us should spend less time reading polls and more time reading Pliny the Elder. It was Pliny, after all, who told us ‘the only certainty is that nothing is certain’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

PRINZ event – Creating a movement for change

10 Nov

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The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Charlotte Wright, PRINZ Student Ambassador at Massey University Wellington.

On Thursday 13 October, PRINZ hosted members in the stunning setting of the Grand Hall at Wellington’s Parliamentary Buildings. The event which was hosted by Melissa Lee, National MP bought together three political experts Andrew Kirton, New Zealand Labour Party; Richard Harman, Politik; Jenna Raeburn, Barton Deakin and one experienced journalist Sean Plunket. The event led to an impassioned discussion on the insights of political campaigning. The panel was asked a variety of questions that both allowed them to provide insight to their thoughts on successful campaigning and also challenged their perspectives. PRINZ was fortunate to have Sean Plunket as the interviewer, who has a strong background in politics, leading the discussion.

Richard Harman gave some interesting points on how campaigns have changed over the last forty years, saying that what was once a “linear, rigid, and sometimes totally boring” subject to report on, political journalism is now focused more on entertainment and encouragement of ‘gotcha journalism’. He went on to explain that “a lot of people out there are looking to ankle tap politicians” to get noticed in the media space.

Jenna Raeburn elaborated on this and explained how campaigns are “changing exponentially” and that the use of data, technology and social media are all now critical tools in targeting specific demographics during campaigns. “You used to have to call, and then visit a target to find out which way they might vote, but now data on Facebook shows us this already, so we can target instantly and with purpose,” she said. She also discussed how the immediacy of social media and online news made rectifying media errors a tough task, saying that it was a long a difficult process to unwind what people hear in the media to ensure accuracy.

Andrew Kirton agreed that it was important for campaigns to integrate social media into their strategies, but assured that the Labour Party were not going to ignore more traditional methods of outreach in next year’s campaign. He said that the way news operates was changing, and by analysing the way people are using media, they would re-balance their campaign priorities and tactics accordingly. He noted that he didn’t think that the New Zealand media would act like the U.S media have in the lead up to the U.S election, saying that the Kiwi culture understands “not to be too silly” when it comes to political reporting.

After some moments of heated discussion, the conversation closed with the panellists’ final thoughts on the New Zealand media space and the role of journalism in society. They all agreed that good journalists were the ones that fact checked, got both sides of the story, and acted as a fourth estate – however, this was at risk with journalistic pressures and the likely possibility of a Fairfax and NZME merger. “Duplicating stories across the media space with no fact-checking and taking out the competition will be bad,” Richard Harman concluded – and an equally risky possibility could be that access to the media could be restricted with a pay-wall, which will mean that media consumption could soon be “a thing for the rich,” he said, looking concerned.

You’ve Got to Know When to Fold ’em

9 Nov

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

Businessman standing on stack of books with a magnifying glass. Business vision

If you have read The Luminaries then you will know that it’s a substantial book. Indeed, one of the reviewers on National Radio joked that it’s a book that ‘gets better after page 400’. Regardless of what this says about the merits of The Luminaries, it raises an interesting general question about when it is okay to abandon a book you have started reading. After all, if you give up too soon then you might miss an amazing plot twist that transforms your experience. But if you plough on regardless, you’ll lose those precious hours you could have used doing (or reading) something better.

Clearly this is not a recent problem. Mark Twain once famously said that a ‘classic’ book is one that ‘everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read’. A quick search of the internet demonstrates that little has changed since Twain’s day, with any number of sites listing books that people pretend they have read. Amazon will even sell you a book to help with the pretense (Anne Taute’s Bluff Your Way in Literature).

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that social scientists have something to say about our reading behaviour, but you may be surprised about what that is. In short, the view from the social sciences is that we should all learn to ditch unsatisfying books sooner.

The first part of this argument arises from what is known as ‘the sunk cost trap’. This describes the tendency to stay with an activity simply because of the time (or money) we have already spent on it. It’s also known as ‘throwing good money after bad’. But we all fall for it to a lesser or greater extent because overcoming sunk costs first means accepting that we have made a bad choice. Our reluctance to make this admission explains why people finish movies or meals they aren’t enjoying; hold on to investments that are underperforming; and keep clothes in their closet that they’ve rarely worn.

The second part of the argument focuses on what is known as ‘loss aversion’. This shows that we feel the pain of losing much more acutely than we do the pleasure from winning. The fear of losing may be what motivates the All Blacks to their great heights of performance but it often inhibits the rest of us. This is because when it comes to making a decision, we are always confronted with the possibility that we’ll make the wrong one. Given this possibility, sticking with the status quo can often seem safer. And I don’t mean a little bit safer – the evidence from the psychology lab suggests that losses are felt about twice as powerfully as similar gains.

Finally, social scientists point to what is known as ‘the Zeigarnik Effect’. This describes how we remember incomplete tasks much more readily (and vividly) than we do complete ones. This Effect has been shown in a number of studies but it began when Zeigarnik’s professor noted how a waiter in a local restaurant could recall unpaid orders but not those that had been paid. The subsequent research demonstrated that the things we start and don’t finish weight much more heavily on our minds than tasks we finish.

Taken together, ‘the sunk cost trap’, ‘loss aversion’, and ‘the Zeigarnik Effect’ mean we are predisposed to staying with tasks long after we should have given up on them; are intrinsically biased towards the status quo; and much more likely to remember our failures than successes.

But while the psychologists have much to say about why it’s so hard to give up on a book you have started to read, they provide little guidance about when we should stop. For this, we need the no-nonsense wisdom of aviation. Mark Vanhoenacker is a 747 pilot and the author of Skyfaring. In his book, he notes that on the final approach to an airport there is a point where the pilot in command has to make a ‘decide call’. To make sure this happens, when the plane reaches the decision-altitude, the flight computer says ‘DECIDE’ out loud and unmistakably. Vanhoenacker talks about how this has become a tool that he uses in his own life when he finds himself procrastinating.

I like the idea of readers creating their own ‘decide’ calls for books. This decision point might occur after you have read the first 60 pages, the first three chapters, or after spending one whole morning reading. But an idea I like even better is to deduct your age from 100 and reading that many pages before giving up. After all, the older we get the less time we have to spend on bad books. And we really do need to know when to walk away and when to run.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

The Wonders of Work Experience

18 Oct

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The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Kendra Stone, PRINZ Student Ambassador at Massey University Auckland.

When I was 14 years old, I was already planning my future.  Mum had me see a career advisor- who had you take personality tests and produced a three-page report on whether you’d be a lawyer with three kids or a teacher with one.  I’d go in there all prepared with “Hi, I’m Kendra, and I want to be a journalist”, but in all honesty, I didn’t have much of an idea of what a journalist was. I thought that they were the pretty ladies who got to be all dressed up on TV, and men who wore really fancy suits, or perhaps the not-so-lucky ones who got battered about by the weather on live television.

“Honey, you’d make a great journalist as you’re always talking and asking so many questions,” Mum would say or “maybe you’d actually make a pretty good detective because you’re so nosy.”  I definitely considered both of these roles for a while, but funnily enough, my three-page report spat out a spiel on how I’d be a great psychologist.  Now in my mind, I imagined a psychologist to be someone lonely, sitting in a stark-white room dealing with everyone’s problems but their own.

Naturally, I was at a loss.  When we got home from the appointment, Mum filed the report in the ‘special documents’ cabinet, giving me a reassuring look of ‘we don’t have to worry about this for a while’.  When I reached year 11 in high school, I had this urge to get out there into the real world (as if school for 6 hours a day wasn’t enough for this blossoming journo/detective/psychologist).

Rocking up to The Radio Network with nothing but trembling, sweaty hands, I introduced myself.  Within a few weeks, I was driving the Black Thunder down Marine Parade, throwing bottles of iced tea at beach-dwellers and helping run the ‘Miss Mount Maunganui’ event.  Once I added that to my CV, I was excited to think about all of the other opportunities I could have if I simply put myself out there and asked!

When I finished school, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I did know it’d be something to do with communications.  I always knew I’d be good at it, because the most common note on my school reports was ‘Kendra needs to learn when to stop talking’.  Enrolling at Massey University in Auckland was the most exciting thing ever!  This little fish was about to move out of little old Tauranga and into the great big ocean of life!  This was three years ago now, and man has it been a super fun ride!

In my first year of university, I contacted South Pacific Pictures, asking if I could come in and see how things went down there.  I was allowed to come in for a few days, helping file media documents on lots of different TV shows from Shortland Street, to Outrageous Fortune, and The Almighty Johnsons.  I worked right next to Fern Sutherland, an actress from the show, and not going to lie I was pretty star-struck! There was also an office dog who liked to sit on my feet, and I definitely think all offices need some kind of animal to ease the stress.

My second year of university was even bigger for me as I contacted the NZ Herald and went in for a one-day stint to have a go at writing a column for the SPCA.  It was all very overwhelming, but extremely exciting at the same time.  Sitting next to reporters who’d had 20-so years in the industry was really cool, but I knew this kind of job wasn’t for me.  In realising that, I emailed over 10 different PR agencies around Auckland, asking them if they’d consider allowing me to come in for unpaid work experience.  After receiving many emails of “Thank you for giving this a go, but unfortunately we haven’t got the space to take anyone on”, I received one from BEAT PR, saying they’d be happy to take me on as an intern every week on a Friday.  This was my first experience with a PR agency-packing media kits, analysing media coverage and trying to navigate my way around Media Portal and Isentia.

The previous year, I had worked at a social media conference for a company called the ‘Online Academy’.  There, I networked with a lot of really motivated people, two of whom owned a company called ‘Starlight Media House’.   Just a few weeks after leaving BEAT PR, I heard from the managers there asked if I’d like to join their team as a Social Media Manager.  My time there was so valuable, as I learnt how to really understand the target audiences I was working with.  I worked with clients like Multiple Sclerosis Auckland, a plastic surgery company, a sanitary product company, and an interior design company.  This role taught me how to analyse my audiences in relation to what kind of content they engaged with the most, and I had so much fun learning about how these different companies operated.

When that came to an end over 12 months later, I applied for an internship position at Castleford Media.  I started this role in August of 2014, and while it was meant to last for only four weeks, I just finished there in August. The best way to describe my experience here? imagine that you’ve stepped onto the set of the film ‘The Internship’ (the one with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan).  The office was situated on the 16th floor of a Victoria Street West high rise, with huge open windows looking out to the sky tower, the viaduct, and people screaming as they were thrown around in the bungee ride.  I sat at Rookie Island (which is pretty self-explanatory), and I was surrounded by the travel and lifestyle, property, marketing, and graphic design islands.  As nervous as I was on my first day, I could not have felt more welcome.  Everyone there was like a family to me, and my role as an editorial intern was a perfect balance of experience, learning, meeting new people, and plenty of laughs! We even had stretch time at 3pm, flannel Fridays and group outings to the dumpling truck at lunchtime.  I learnt so much at Castleford Media, from using programmes like Curator and Scribe, to editing articles and coming up with content plans for the writers.

As all good things come to an end, so did this.  I left Castleford to devote myself more to my Communications group at University, organising tours to MediaWorks and NZME.   I was lucky enough to be appointed as the PRINZ Student Ambassador for Massey a role in which I’ve met some awesome people and been to some of PRINZ great networking events.

Now that I’m in my final weeks of my degree, I can look back at my work experience opportunities as a film reel, drawing on roles and scenes which stood out to me the most. If my career advisor could have predicted that I’d be lucky enough to have all of these amazing experiences, I probably would have asked him how that could be possible.  Now, I know that anything is possible if you put yourself out there, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, and always be willing to learn from others.  The last few years have been an absolute rollercoaster, but if someone asked me to ride it again, I’d be in the front seat ready to go.

Image credit: @Istock

What’s Wrong with The Millennials?

12 Oct

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First Ltd

The Millennials (aka Generation Y) – you must have seen them. They’re that cohort of your colleagues born between the mid 1980s and the year 2000. They’re the ones who are self-obsessed, disengaged, and the reason the world is going to hell in a handcart.

References to ‘Millennials’ are everywhere.

A quick search on Google found over 200 million hits, and Amazon has at least 7,000 books on the subject. Time magazine attempted to summarise all this writing by noting that this generation are “lazy, entitled, narcissists, who still live with their parents” but who, apparently, “will save us all”.

Which would be nice, except none of it is true.

Not only are your Millennial colleagues not like this, but the notion that we can cluster people into cohorts based on their age is simply nonsense.

The generations’ idea has a long history but it really started gaining momentum with what is known as the ‘Strauss-Howe’ generational theory. This is based on a model that William Strauss and Neil Howe set out in their book Generations, and it is where the notion of Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials really took hold.

It’s a beautifully elegant scheme.

Al Gore called Generations ’the most stimulating book on American history’ he’d ever read. He even sent a copy to each member of Congress. But, as any decent social scientist will tell you, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And here things start to fall apart quickly.

When scrutinised, the ‘evidence’ for generational differences reveals itself to be a bundle of non-falsifiable truisms which explain everything and predict nothing. Sure, the stories they tell about Millennials are often upbeat, fun to read, and eminently quotable, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. What they are is all pastry and no pie. After all, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not data.

However, there is no real need to debate the evidence for once. This is because it is pretty simple to demonstrate that the notion of ‘generations’ is ridiculous on the face of it. The idea that tens of millions of people across the world will share values or ways of communicating (or even an aptitude for technology) just because they were born in the same 20 year period is laughably absurd. If you simply stop and think about what is being claimed about Millennials (or any of the other Generations), then it becomes obvious that those claims are as implausible as they are contrived.

Try it another way: Why do we accept that we can divide our colleagues at work (to take just one example) into three or four distinct groups based on the year they are born in but reject as ridiculous the notion that we can divide them into twelve groups based on the month they are born in? In other words, why is there a serious discussion about Millennial employees but not about Sagittarian interns?

Social scientists are clear that – when groups get big enough – the differences within the groups will be greater than the differences between the groups. This is precisely what the serious research about attitudes and attributes by birthdate show us. The story is one of continuity, showing that members of subsequent generations are much more alike than they are different.

But if the case against ‘Millennials’ is so strong, why is it so popular? (recall those 200 million hits and 7,000 books mentioned earlier). The answer is because there are whole industries who benefit from that belief. As a result, the notions of generations are often uncritically promoted in the media and slickly marketed. Think about all the times you have seen some offering, for a fee, to help improve how you communicate with, engage with, or sell to, the Millennial generation.

That’s what the notion of generations really is, an idea to persuade you to buy something. It’s a marketing success story but it remains terrible social science. Instead of focusing on when we were born, social scientists talk about differences by referencing our gender, our ethnicity, how affluent we are, where we were born, who we socialised with, and the whole rich tapestry of human experience. Social scientists wish the world was as simple as the notion of generations promises but it stubbornly isn’t.

In one regard, my argument here is that the notion of generations is an elaborate con and that social science provides a powerful riposte to being conned. But the argument also hides a criticism of many of the ideas that we uncritically use to explain the social world. How many of those ideas fall into the same trap as the notion of ‘generations’? More to the point, how often do you stop to think about the ideas you use to make sense of the social world?

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

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