“Public pronouncements” versus “private predilections”: What we say isn’t always what we actually believe.

Public versus private thinkingThere’s an intriguing new research report out from Young & Rubicam that lays bare the contradictions of what people say they like and want … and what they secretly think.

The findings are outlined in a new research study Y&R has dubbed Secrets & Lies … and it’s based on research conducted in September 2013 among adults over age 18 in the United States, Brazil and China.

The bottom line?  The Y&R research finds that many people hold views that are diametrically opposed to what they reveal to others publicly.

That kind of a result would be difficult to measure using traditional survey research.  So Y&R chose to meld the conventional survey approach with a second methodology known as “Implicit Association Testing.”

IAT helps reveal sub-conscious or unconscious motivations that lie outside of our standard awareness.

So, what contradictions and correlations did the research uncover? 

Let’s start with the study’s global findings.  When asked to rank-order a group of 16 “values,” here’s a listing of the top five values as cited by the survey respondents in all three countries:

  • #1.  Finding meaning in life
  • #2.  Choosing my own path
  • #3.  Helpfulness
  • #4.  Environmentalism
  • #5.  Success

Now … compare that to the “Top 5” list that was revealed with these same respondents were evaluated using implicit association:

  • #1.  Sexual fulfillment
  • #2.  Respect for tradition
  • #3.  Maintaining security
  • #4.  Environmentalism
  • #5.  Building wealth


We  see just one value appearing on both lists … and there are some pretty big differences in the values that reside on each of them.

Did American respondents differ from their counterparts in China and Brazil?  Like the global results, the values were quite different between conscious responses and implicit association. 

U.S. respondents named helpfulness as their highest-ranked value, followed by choosing my own path and finding meaning in life.

But what did the implicit association testing reveal among these same American respondents?

Far from being at the top of the list, “helpfulness” came in dead last:  16th place out of 16 values rated.  Instead, the top three “subconscious” values are actually these:

  • #1.  Maintaining security
  • #2.  Sexual fulfillment
  • #3.  Honoring tradition

As the Y&R study pointedly opines, America’s top conscious values sound like political correctness reminiscent of the Oprah Show … whereas our unconscious values sound more like a return to the Eisenhower era.

These seeming disconnects between “public pronouncements” and “private predilections” manifest themselves in brand image as well.

As it turns out, consumers say they like the “popular kids” on the branding block a lot more than they actually do subconsciously.

Here’s a list of top brands researched and how they come out in conscious rating versus IAT evaluation:

  • Alignment between public and secret likes:  Amazon, Target, Whole Foods
  • Alignment between public and secret dislikes:  AT&T, K-Mart, Playboy
  • Liked less in secret:  Google, Microsoft, Starbucks
  • Liked more in secret:  Exxon, Facebook, National Inquirer

When I scan this list, it’s pretty evident what’s going on.  Certain brands are popular whipping boys in the “popular media” and on certain cable news channels, where one rarely hears positive word uttered about them. 

Not surprisingly, it’s precisely those brands that get a “public thumbs-down” from the respondents.

But in secret — away from the klieg lights and the admonitions of the culture’s PC denizens — it’s quite a different ballgame.

Of course, no one would want their brand to be in AT&T’s or K-Mart’s unenviable position – because that’s where people dislike those companies publicly as well as in their private thoughts!

One thought on ““Public pronouncements” versus “private predilections”: What we say isn’t always what we actually believe.

  1. It’s not just marketing. Consider this: The United States was established as a representative democracy. The idea was for voters to elect people whose wisdom and inclinations they trusted to represent them at the local, state, and national level.

    Increasingly, however, the pervasive use of (traditional survey) polling has caused us to become more of a direct democracy — like Switzerland. Elected officials now micro-poll every single consequential issue and adjust their views accordingly.

    As a result, politicians are no longer “thought leaders,” they are merely “poll followers.”

    Some people no doubt would consider this a new “democratic efficiency” spawned by technology. Others would cite the fickle nature of public opinion and call it a perversion of our system of government.

    In any event, it makes mere puppets of politicians and leaves the business of political persuasion to the entertainment industry.

    Now we have this new wrinkle: It turns out people often don’t tell inquiring minds the truth! So the next time you hear a pundit contend, “It’s clear the American people believe ‘X’…” the considered response should be, “Well … maybe.”

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