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Monday
Aug262013

Difficulties quantifying human behavior

I recently listened to a This American Life podcast about helping others in need.  One segment told the story of a charity that gives money, with no strings attached, to some poor residents of Kenya.  Once the residents got over the initial skepticism, they found that some people tended to buy goods that raised their standard of living and simultaneously saved money.  For example, one family decided to replace their grass roof with a metal roof.  This not only helped their livelihood (no more wet puddles indoors during rainstorms), but also saved them the money they would have normally spent on multiple repairs to the grass roof in a given year.  Another family decided to buy a cow which not only gave their family milk, but also produced a surplus that they family was able to sell to others and for a profit.

Individuals from the charity talked with many organizations that exist to help those that struggle.  If they were able to see positive repercussions from merely giving people money, why don't more organizations follow this model?

A woman from Heifer International, one person they talked to from such an organization, said it most eloquently: "we're not about experiments. These are lives of real people. And we have to do what we believe is correct.  We can't make experiments with people's lives, they're just too important. It's just not that linear. It's not an equation. It's an eco system.  Data has its value but it cannot capture everything."

This is the biggest problem with psychological research and user research.  There will always be a divide between what is actually going on and what the researchers are 1) able to capture and record as data and 2) able to interpret from the results.

Questioning the validity of research on human behavior is nothing new for me; I have had this same thought since freshman year as a psych major.  There has to be a breaking point, and there has to be a choice as to whether decisions will be based on some semblance of human behavioral research or merely based on a gut instinct with no supporting evidence.  Human behavior is not linear.  Perhaps shifting more into user research with smaller sample sizes and slightly looser methodological restrictions is a better approach then trying to apply rigid scientific methods to us malleable and emotional human folk.

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