what if innovation blog walking the walk understanding the say do gap

Walking The Walk: Understanding The Say/Do Gap

By Jonny Inglis
I love books. I loved books so much at school that I wanted to unite with other book-lovers and read during our lunch break

I would call it the Literature Society, a place for those who wanted Ezra Pound over a muddy playground. I printed out some badges, spoke to potential members, and whipped up some early interest. People told me they’d make the first session, or if not this lunch break, then the sessions after.  

It probably won’t come as a surprise that I read alone every Thursday lunchtime. Despite the promises of potential members, nobody ever showed up – except for one pity visit from my English teacher (thank you Mr. Pedroz). 99 spare badges gathering dust in my newly purchased LitSoc Filofax, I decided to shut the Society down. But I learned a valuable lesson – there’s a big difference between what people promise, and what they actually do. 

That people will say one thing and do another is no surprise, but it calls into question what we understand about human behaviour. This is a problem that the economist John List encountered when studying Kahneman’s Dictator game. The Dictator was a lab experiment from the 80s where Participant A was given $20, and a choice: to split the money evenly with Participant B, or be greedy and only give away $2. In a remarkable show of altruism, 75% of participants split the money 50/50 – but List was suspicious. 

List set up a different version of the Dictator, where Participant A worked to earn their $20, and was then asked if they would like to split the money with Participant B. Suddenly, only 6% of participants chose to give any money at all. By recreating real world conditions (that money is earned, not given), List was able to strike at what we call the say/do gap – the difference between what people say, and what they’ll actually do. And like me with my Literature Society, he found out that people aren’t quite as nice as we’d like to think. 

Understanding the say/do gap is central to understanding your customer. It’s easy to feel confused when an idea, after having received positive feedback, fails to perform in the real world.

People are often reluctant to admit certain truths aloud, like the preference for a good price over a good cause: people might say they’ll buy free range or stop using plastic, but in the shadows of the supermarket aisle who knows whether their promises are kept. After all, promises are cheap – Rob Fitzpatrick puts it brilliantly when he points out the difference between complimenting someone’s shirt, and offering to buy it off them. 

There are two solutions: the first is gathering feedback without asking for it. By creating an environment where people do not know their behaviour is being scrutinised, you will be able to bypass the everyday lies that consumers tell themselves and others. Second, demand a commitment from your test subject. John List asked participants to give up their hard-earned money, and in doing so people revealed their true colours.  

Don’t wait until it’s too late to understand the say/do gap in your customer base, or you’ll end up like the founding and only member of the Literature Society – sat alone in a dark room, halfway through a story which nobody wanted to read anyway. 

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