Last week I was honoured to address the Market Research Society on societal trust and expectations. The talk coalesced issues such as the ISIS brand; ethical implications of Volkswagen admitting it knew about their emissions fabrication at least a year prior to its public announcement, and what manipulation and hacking at sites such as Ashley Madison says about brand integrity and society’s attitude to online honesty.
That’s a lot to pack into one talk! So for this article I am only going to discuss the first part of the talk, where I took the audience back in time to 800 BCE and the story of Jonah.
Irrespective of religious viewpoints, I drew on the story to make a point about human nature.
To remind you, Jonah a biblical character, was instructed by G-d to travel to Nineveh (a community of some 120,000). He was to caution the people to turn away from deceit and ‘Hamas’ (literally: “violence”).
Jonah felt he was on a fool’s errand. Nineveh was beyond redemption. In fact, he wanted to get as far away from the place (Now near Mosul in Iraq) as possible. So he made his way to the port town of Joppa from where he boarded a ship to Tarshish.
Sea conditions were abysmal. Feeling depressed and convinced the weather was down to divine retribution for running away from his duties, Jonah convinced his fellow passengers to throw him overboard. The sea calmed, but rather than drowning, Jonah was swallowed by whale. Miraculously, the whale did not digest Jonah.
Sat in its belly with the prospects of being digested, Jonah started to pray. He praised G-d, speaking of those who those who overly concerned with ‘worthless futilities… ever ready to abandon kindness for selfish reasons.
“But I, with a voice of thanks will I sacrifice to You; what I vowed I will pay, in return for your salvation”.
The whale then spouts Jonah out near the shores of Nineveh.
Despite remaining unconvinced that Nineveh would change its ways, Jonah walks for three days to Nineveh to give the people forty days’ notice to make amends.
He pitches up a small hut (Sukkah) just outside the city walls. There he waits for Nineveh’s celestial punishment.
Then, as now, the desert heat was searing. So overnight G-d raised a ‘kikayon’ (thought to be a calabash-tree or variety of plant with large vine-like leaves) to provide shade.
Word of Jonah’s warning reached the King and his politicians who, acting completely out of character, decreed the entire kingdom to repent.
Accordingly, the celestial sentence was withdrawn with immediate effect.
Given Nineveh’s track record of Hamas and double-standards, Jonah became exasperated. He felt Nineveh’s show of repentance was nothing less than a pantomime. G-d however recognised that human nature is what is … well intended but ultimately, fickle. Even if Nineveh improved for a short time, it would be better than nothing.
When it comes to right and wrong, we tend act in short term interests. After all, no one can fully control the big long-term picture called ‘life’.
Short term decisions appear more manageable. In fact, we are so accustomed to dealing with the short-term that in business, ‘firefighting’ is the norm. In psychology, we embrace phenomenology and mindfulness – living in the moment. Despite the longer term consequences people strive to get what they can now.
It’s understandable, long-term control seems ever more precarious. Population increases, job instability, lack of housing, costly education, family breakdowns, failing economies, poor health services … to name a few - are the kind of daily reminders that make planning a luxury.
Short-term gains play a role in the psychology of market research. Despite fail-safe processes built into questionnaires to catch out rigged answers, consumers have become attuned to playing the research system – especially online. During the talk, I discussed the science of online disinhibition – how what people publicly say and do online is often unrelated to what they personally believe.
Humans are as much affected by nurture and environment as they are influenced by communications. From mendacious emails and moot answers on surveys or satisfaction surveys… to deceiving dating descriptions… people naturally take the lead from those that influencing the modern world.
That includes technologies that encourage people to think in terms of black and white efficiencies rather than human shades of grey.
Extremists such as ISIS, exploiting Western failings such as recent stats suggesting that thanks to contemporary society, children are more miserable than ever. (Children in England are among the unhappiest in the world, feeling worse about going into school every day than those in Ethiopia, Algeria or Romania). [Incidentally, ISIS recently destroyed Jonah’s tomb near Mosul].
Then there are brands allegedly bending rules. Not just the Ashley Madisons or VW Groups of this world. For example, at the time of writing, The Times newspaper reported allegations of Coca-Cola spending £4.86 million setting up initiatives such as the European Hydration Institute (EHI) - a research foundation to counter claims that its fizzy drinks can lead to obesity.
The newspaper claimed that the chairman of the EHI's scientific advisory board, was an emeritus professor of sport science at Loughborough University, which received almost £1 million from Coca-Cola while he provided nutritional advice to leading sports bodies.
As pressure to be succeed mounts and competition to reach the top, or simply survive, gets sharper, so, in an act of self preservation, through casually – even instinctively prepared to do whatever it takes - society is muted to answering pleas of conscience.
Equally just as the likes of Cameron, Corbyn or Clinton will always guarantee a better tomorrow, so Nineveh’s promises were fated to be short-lived.
But before you think that Jonah was beyond reproach, consider this: overnight G-d sent a worm to kill the kikayon. Jonah collapsed in the heat. Devastated by the loss of shade, he begged to die. At which point G-d reminded Jonah that he didn’t even have to break a sweat to grow the plant. It grew overnight by a miracle. Given Jonah’s anguish over the kikayon, why shouldn’t G-d take pity on more than one hundred twenty thousand people?
From religious point of view, the meaning of the story relates to mercy as well justice. But for the talk to the Market Research Society, I offered a different interpretation, based on an often overlooked detail: Not only did Jonah take the kikayon for granted, but he had already previously built himself hut for shade. In truth, the plant was just a fringe benefit.
Which leads to a couple of questions: When measuring true beliefs are people more likely to complain about issues taken for granted or to be influence by their immediate feelings of loss – however selfish? Are they prepared to say whatever it takes to get what they want today rather than need tomorrow?
After all in today’s world every second counts, whether it be via social media, pressure groups, propaganda, politics, or money – he who shouts loudest gets what they want and deserve – don’t they?