Friday, August 6, 2010

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Everybody knows about the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even if they don't understand exactly--in terms of quantum physics--what it actually means. There was even a recent Coen Brothers' movie (A Serious Man) about it. At least I think that's what it was about. I'm not certain.

In a layman's nutshell  the Uncertainty Principle states that you can't know both the velocity and the position of a particle at the same time because the act of measuring one affects the other.

There's an old joke that illustrates this: Werner Heisenberg is pulled over by a cop who asks him, "Dr Heisenberg, do you know how fast you were going?"  And Heisenberg says, "No, officer, but I do know where I am."  Get it?

And another one: Heisenberg doesn't like to drive himself because every time he glances at his speedometer he gets lost.

I'm sure there are a million of them. (Actually, I'm not sure.)

What I like about the UP is it seems to absolve us from claiming to know anything. Whew! If you're asked a tough question, all you have to say is, "Well, we can't know for certain." Bing! you're excused. (It's important, too, to put everything in the first person plural; further distancing yourself from personal responsibility for the material.) Of course, this dodge only works at very small scales, where the relative size of things like, oh,  protons are as big as Jupiter. At the normal scales at which most of us eat lunch, it's not going to let you off the hook.

But I was a psychology major as an undergrad (I must admit, I groaned through physics in college).  And, happily for me, there's an analog to the UP in social psychology that is relevant at bigger scales. It's called the Hawthorne Effect,  named after a work-efficiency study done at The Hawthorne Works, a General Electric plant outside of Chicago in the 1920s, in which the workers at the factory did a lot better when they knew they were being observed  than afterward, when the study was over. Anyway, this psychological version of the Heisenberg UP states that the mere act of observing behavior changes that behavior--with apologies to those theoretical physicists, to whom I say, "Get a life."

Also known as the Observer-Expectancy Effect, this bugaboo of psychology grad students has screwed up thousands of behavioral experiments for decades. Sadly, too, for the multi-billion dollar market research industry (I have no idea what the actual size of this industry is, there is no way of knowing precisely--see how many ways you can use the UP?), the Hawthorne Effect pollutes most studies.

Say you've been invited to participate in a focus group. It doesn't matter what the subject is. Sitting behind your handwritten name card, with your bottled water and little paper plate of trail mix, you're suddenly aware that you're not yourself. You're not the real you, slouching on your couch in an orthopedically inadvisable posture, TiVoing through the commercials, just trying to muster the energy to get up and see what's in the fridge. Poof! You're now an "expert" on whatever it is you've been invited to render an opinion on.You're sitting up straight and alert, keenly aware of unseen others scribbling down everything you say like you're Jesus on the Mount.

You're shown a storyboard for a TV commercial and asked what you like or don't like about it. Even though you've never had to write or design an ad in your life, or even know what a storyboard is, your opinion (as well as those of the other 7-11 targeted subjects behind their own name cards) will have a bearing on whether the commercial airs. You're more important than you've ever been in your life. You're aware that the invisible suits (nervously eating their own trail mix behind the one-way glass) are hanging on your every word; that millions are riding on your sage and honest answer.

But it isn't an honest answer. Because you are aware that you're "on," your own self-image is at stake. You don't care whether the ad will work or not (speaking as you do for millions), you only care that people regard you as an intelligent, plain-speaking, honest, insightful person. You're an actor. And not a very good one.

And yet the fate of untold numbers (once again, we have no way of actually knowing the precise numbers) of advertising campaigns, products, policies, and life-altering decisions is held in the raisin-sticky hands of these few bad actors every year.  The enthralled executives behind the one-way glass nod in grave resignation that the funny commercial they claimed to have liked (at least to the touchy creatives who dreamed it up) is suddenly dead. The "experts" have spoken. You can't argue with science.

But it's all a sham. Because of the Hawthorne Effect. Because of Werner Heisenberg.

Now, don't get me wrong. (You have, after all, no real way of knowing where I really stand on this issue.) Looking at it another way, I have worked with a rare class of brilliant account planners (the industry's technical name for market research experts) who were very aware of the Hawthorne Effect and how to manipulate it to draw out the very answers they wanted  from each focus group. These marketing Heisenbergs have techniques of neutralizing the observer effect in focus groups and questionnaires. They can deftly pull out true reactions without the reactors even knowing it. They also have brilliant ways of isolating the "bell cow," the loud-mouth in every focus group who tries to sway the opinions of the rest of the herd. And their post-focus-group analysis can draw insightful conclusions about what really went on behind those name cards.  Devious, indeed.

Until now, frustrated creatives had no way of voicing their objections to what felt like a sand-bagging by focus groups spouting their opinions about whether their ads were "working" or not. Now they have science on their side, too. They can mash down the "wrong answer" buzzer and cry "Uh, excuse me? Hawthorne Effect!"And sound very snooty in doing it.

Of course, that won't change the outcome. The ad will still be dead. Nobody listens to creatives. Smart asses.


  1. YES! There it is. My favorite Beloved Leader teaching.

    I think I have told you more than once that I would take a Jeff Berry "hunch" over the most perfectly crafted focus group every time.

    I believe it was in response to Heisenberg, that Einstein said, "Surely God does not play dice with the Universe and he definitely never uses focus groups."

  2. Einstein hated focus groups. When the Nazis countered his theory of General Relativity with a claim that 200-some German scientists said he was wrong, he responded, "It only takes one to be right."