Sunday 1 September 2013

What People Say They Want

What people say they want is not the same as what they actually choose. (Ben Haller in The New Statesman May 7 2005)

It is said that doctors, when they ask you how much you drink, will take the answer and double it. (New Yorker 2007)

"People say they want things, and then they don't really want them," said Chris Martone, executive chef for Subway... It has developed new whole-grain breads and put them up against their refined flour breads in consumer taste tests. The refined-flour breads always win - though in surveys, people say they're looking for whole grains. ( People also said they wanted salads at McDonalds and then didn’t buy them.

Malcolm Gladwell in Blink says that according to research by coffee producers people claim to like “dark, rich” coffee when actually they like it milky and sweet.

People think they don't watch, look at or listen to ads. “Living in a very commercial society I make a pointed effort to avoid them. ... I haven't paid attention to ads for years!” (

Around 1970, I was part of the team that launched Ariel. The recommended dosage was (can't remember the actual figure - let's say) 50g. One of the technical team told me that in fact the ideal level was 35g. "But many users assume we try to increase sales by overestimating the amount you need, and put in much less. Then they find it hasn't worked well, and assume the product doesn't work. So we recommend a dosage about 50 per cent higher than the ideal, to make sure they use enough." (Friend RN writes)

Chinese people say they want to visit Europe for the art and culture: actually they want to shop.

English people think they want to live in the country. They spend most of their life living in the city but are convinced that they don’t really belong; they’re not city folk, they’re really country people. They can’t wait to “escape” the “rat race” and the “hustle and bustle” (the other people). They think they want to get away from it all. Then they find they’re trapped, there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go, you have to drive everywhere, there are no shops, nobody to talk to… (They probably even miss the “crowds” they’re always wanting to avoid.)

Others think they want a life abroad where there is “space to think and write”, “space to breathe” – translated, that means somewhere where property is cheaper so they can afford a big house with a garden. They give up when the money runs out. They realise they can’t get a job locally (apart from oyster gathering), their children don’t learn French just by osmosis, their own French isn’t good enough and it never will be. Even if they speak perfect French, les Français won’t accept them or be their friend; there’s nobody to talk to, especially not other English people from the particular class layer they belong to. They’ve gone there for a “sense of community” but are spooked by people observing and commenting on their every move. (It’s OK for the incomers to observe the natives, especially “quirky characters”.) They realise they actually love the anonymity of the city and go back to London and write about it in The Guardian.

They think they like porridge plain, with salt.

They think they like strawberries with black pepper.

Respondents tell researchers what they think they want to hear, or what the subjects want to believe about themselves (that they only eat a banana for breakfast, live the “green” life, floss every day, eat out in restaurants not get a takeaway, go to concerts and the theatre not the multiplex). They tell pollsters that men prefer curvy women, and women prefer men with a sense of humour.

Women say they don’t judge men by their looks. (July 12, 2003)

Men think they won’t mind if their wife earns more than they do. (Latest research suggests it makes them depressed, August 2013.)

Men say they find intelligence attractive.

Internet daters say they like meals out and long walks in the country.

The Three-Toed Sloth website casts doubt on dating research that merely asks people to report their preferences, rather than studying their behaviour: "You might find that students who say they are, e.g., very attractive claim to demand very attractive mates, and vice versa... It would not be reasonable, however, to say that you are actually studying 'the cognitive processes underlying human mate choice', for several reasons. You have no data on actual mate choice, but at best on mating preferences. In fact, you do not have data on actual preferences, but claimed preferences. And you really don't even have self-perception data, but claimed self-perception."

People think they like hard mattresses so they got harder and harder, so hard that you now have to get a mattress topper – a reinvention of the feather bed. (You can even get a Comfort U Total Body Pillow.)

They think they’d like to have “family dinner” round a dining table in a dining area or dining room once a week, and think they’d eat out in a garden if they had one, or sit out with a glass of wine. 

Drinkers think they like dry white wine, but they don’t really, so the bottlers label medium “dry” and sweet “medium”.

Novelist and mystery-writer Simon Brett is good on people who are always moaning about belonging to a huge faceless institution, and whining that they want to be free to do their own thing, but actually love the security and the fact that they can get away with doing rather little and have everything laid on.

Nobody tells a historian that they lived in a slum when they were young - but they can tell you all about the really rough area a few streets away.

The proprietor of an art, craft and gift shop says he’s closing down. He says people come into the shop, look at handmade things, pick them up and say “Oooh, that’s lovely”, and go elsewhere and buy something manufactured. He thought they’d turn into customers but they don’t.

People think they want to run their own communities à la Big Society (no interference from petty bureaucrats!). But when it comes down to it nobody wants to do the work. (And probably nobody has an inkling of how much work is involved.)

They all think they’re special and that conventions are for other people. Oh, and they think they're an individual and don't belong to a group.


  1. Do you remember TV dating programme Blind Date? The boys would always pick the loudest, most overt, most risqué girl who shouted sexy remarks at them. Then they'd go on a date with her and complain that she wasn't quiet, didn't listen to him, and attracted too much attention in the restaurant. Every week. And I'm sure it's the same in modern dating programmes (which of course we wouldn't dream of watching because WE genuinely prefer to watch documentaries about scientific inventions and 18th century history, and we hate reality shows and talent shows.)

  2. Oh dear, I really DO watch progs about science and history! Interesting re Blind Date. I'd have expected it to be the other way round.