Revealing Preferences at BX2015

Quote of the week

‘Intelligence is like underwear. Always important to have it, not always necessary to show it off’

Gus O’Donnell’s Mum

Revealing preferences at BX2015

This week, the biggest and brightest minds in global behavioural insight scurried across Westminster bridge and into the dark (but very pleasant) depths of the Park Plaza. They were rapidly followed by a few hundred others, eager to listen, learn, and gather author-signed books. It’s the psychology equivalent of Comic-Con. But without the costumes. Mostly.

I went along to the second day, missing out on the fun the night before, and probably feeling fresher than most attendees because of it. Luckily the #BX2015 hashtag provided highlights of the day (such as Daniel Kahneman saying that ‘you shouldn’t study anything that’s not fun’ – surely a good rule for life in general?).

It’s impossible to cover everything in a conference like this, unless you’re sat glued to your laptop following the Twitter streams from each of the individual breakout sessions in the afternoon. Which is what I did on day one. So instead, let me share thoughts from my favourite session – a fascinating debate on ‘revealing preferences’, with talks from Hal Varian (Chief Economist at Google) and Dan Ariely (of Dan Ariely fame). 


I remember someone saying to me once that ‘search’ is the one time you can guarantee that someone is being completely truthful, as you always absolutely mean to search for the thing you type into the box (spelling mistakes aside). As Hal led the audience through some of the tools at Google’s disposal to study human behaviour, I couldn’t help recalling that and thinking just how accurate a statement it is. 

If this is true, then it makes search data a brilliant insight into the the world right now, and since the beginning of time. (Well, 1997.) Searches for ‘Hangover’ peak on a Sunday morning. For Vodka? A Saturday night. Searches for ‘Civil War’ in the US peak three days before the end of term papers are due. And a fact that can only be described as ‘disappointing’ for man, searches of ‘gift for wife’ are nowhere near as frequent as ‘gift for girlfriend’ – with further evidence of panic buying below:


Hal then moved onto demonstrating how Google’s understanding of human behaviour can lead to finding compelling correlations, in areas such as housing, happiness, and life spans. There was a great comparison between the search terms used in McDowell county (life expectancy equal to Iraq) and Fairfax county (Sweden), both in Virginia. In the former, people were far more likely to be anti-Obama, searching for blood pressure medicine or plus-sized clothes, and most tellingly, ‘Gunshot wounds’… An odd thing to casually search for.

Hal finished up by looking at Google Consumer Surveys, opening a new front in the war against traditional market research. The example here was looking at where the marketing message ‘Assembled in America’ may be most impactful – and the answer was most definitely not California. People who strongly believe in that message are likely to search for Chevrolet, Firearms, and Country Music, as well as a couple of firearms searches again. And that’s just scratching the surface…

Next up was irrational hero Dan Ariely, a quite brilliant speaker (and powerpoint free too, much to everyones delight.) His talk focussed on the topic of honesty, or more accurately, how we’re all just a little bit dis-honest. 


If a vending machine is broken and giving out free candy, we’re likely to take a few bars and convince ourselves this is ‘squaring the score’ from the times we’ve had chocolate get stuck in previous but entirely unrelated machines. People are more likely to cheat when something is for charity, as if this morally justifies it. And my favourite fact from the day, to test out in every conversation henceforth… Within 10 minutes of small talk, we lie, on average, 3 times. Yes, I have heard of that person you just mentioned…

Dan then went on to look more deeply into the reasons for this. His studies have shown that if you put someone in a corrupt environment, the quickly adapt to the new rules of operation (with bankers twice as likely to cheat as politicians). For those people, and most people, corruption is just about splitting your life between areas you care about and those that you don’t, and behaving accordingly. 

From having completed studies in numerous countries around the world, something is clear to him – the level of cheating remains the same everywhere you go. This demonstrates that, whilst culture changes how we behave in a particular domain, it doesn’t change the underlying backbone of humanity. 


The last line, though, has to go to Owain Service, MD of the Behavioural Insights team. In a discussion around how to successfully institutionalise behavioural insight and work with others to do so, he said it really came down to two things: making yourself useful, and working in collaboration and partnership. Now that sounds like a pretty good approach to work in general…


I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.


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