Heisenberg In The Call Center
In my last post, I noted that a major concern of researchers is that survey respondents are willing to provide opinions on issues about which they have little knowledge. This is one example of how the research process itself can influence our understanding of the people whose attitudes and behavior we are studying. The simple act of asking people questions becomes more complex when you consider that the respondent’s opinion may not have existed prior to that person hearing the question.
- “What we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Werner Heisenberg
In physics, this could be considered similar to the “observer effect,” which Wikipedia describes as changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed. The classic example is that of trying to observe subatomic particles, like electrons. By shining a light on an electron to be able to observe it, we must bombard it with photons, which interact with the electron and alter its course and velocity. I’ve written about this concept in a past blog post.
Similarly, by asking a question of someone or even observing them in a group setting from behind a two-way mirror, we influence the type of response give us; the researchers become the photons. As a research advocate, I’m still a big fan of employing focus groups and surveys and other tools to understand one’s target audience. I believe doing so is crucially important for all major programs and social marketing campaigns. But animal and environmental groups should try to keep in mind the observer effect when interpreting research results. We should also consider utilizing more truly unobtrusive observational methods to minimize the observer effect in research.
Also in physics, a concept closely related to the observer effect is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The physicist Heisenberg stated that the more precisely we seek to measure one aspect of a quantum particle, the less precisely we would be able to measure related aspects of that particle. This principle is again analogous to social marketing research, where asking questions about one topic may influence a respondent’s answers on related topics. For instance, asking questions about the environment before asking about one’s reasons for being vegetarian may overstate the environment as a motivator. This is one of the reasons why question order should be chosen carefully when designing surveys and discussion guides.
- “Public opinion, like everything else in the universe, does not exist apart from the measurement process… How we ask the questions and the order and context in which we ask them can make a significant difference in the results of public opinion polls.” George Bishop,
The Illusion of Public Opinion