Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

In 2016, I converted the more than 1,000 slides I had built for my classroom lectures at the University of the West Indies into articles that I posted on a new site, LetsTakeACloserLook.com. The subject of most of those early articles was an amalgam of what I call the SPA courses: sociology, psychology, and anthropology.

Once I had turned my entire MBA course into a free resource, I shifted to writing about what I had learned in 30 years as a consumer, business, and market researcher. Articles from my middle period are a favorite of executives who want to get better business intelligence than they’re getting now. Their favorites are:

In the past year or so, I’ve been writing for people who want to look at old things in new ways and see the commonplace in greater detail. Recent articles take a closer look at such familiar topics as blue jeans, yawning, bananas, and station wagons.

Three reader favorites are tied to the calendar

  • Old Lang Sign is a brief history of New Year’s celebrations and how only one resolution in ten succeeds.
  • March 32nd is the story of April Fool’s Day, including such notable pranks as the two-minute BBC segment that introduced viewers to a family of Italian farmers as they harvested the new spaghetti crop from the trees in their spaghetti orchard. Hundreds called in wanting to know where they could buy the trees. You can watch the 1957 YouTube video here.
  • Every time a bank holiday rolls around, lots of people read Why Do Banks Close on Bank Holidays?

And now, here are your Top 10 reader favorites, by the number of readers

Click on any of the titles to be taken to the full article.

#10. Turtles All the Way Down

April 27, 2020

This creation story concludes by saying the world is carried around on the back of a turtle. 

Stephen Hawking tells of the time an elderly lady informed him science was all wrong. “The world,” she said, ”rests on the back of a giant turtle.” When Hawking asked what the turtle stands on, she replied: “You’re very clever, young man, very clever — but it’s turtles all the way down.” 

In business, turtles all the way down is how well-informed people describe those who dodge the tough questions because they haven’t any facts.  Those who have no facts to back up their claims unknowingly reveal themselves in two ways. As Daniel Kahneman would say, they are:

  • Blind to the obvious.
  • Blind to their blindness.

Harvard Business Review says good leadership is about asking good questions. They say that those who think they have all the answers are either clueless or lying. When I was traveling around the world as a researcher, people everywhere would say, “Oh, you’re the one with all the answers.” My reply never varied: “No, I’m the one with all the questions.”

Key Takeaway

Knowing what questions to ask is half of it. The other half, knowing how to evaluate the answers you get, is even more important.

#9. Do The Name Ruby Begonia Strike a Familiar Note?

July 18, 2022

Amos ’n’ Andy was the first TV show to feature a cast of all-black actors. It was one of the most controversial and polarizing shows in the history of United States television. 

  • The NAACP hated it. They issued a proclamation saying this show causes millions of white American viewers to think the entire race is “lazy, dumb, and dishonest; crooks, quacks, and thieves; cackling clowns and screaming shrews.” 
  • Millions of viewers loved it. Cast members consistently defended the show as a comedy, where the buffoonish and slow characters were funny, as they would also be if they were whites. See Hillbillies, Beverly.

Key Takeaway

Understand all sides of a story before making up your mind. I think Amos n’ Andy is an under-appreciated part of American history and the kind of anthropological/sociological/cultural story they should have taught us in school.

#8. You Get What You Pay For

December 1, 2016

There are scores of things survey experts know to be crucial to good design, and amateurs know nothing about them. This is why do-it-yourself online survey companies say their tools require absolutely no previous experience or knowledge. Sure, if you’re satisfied with surveys such as the ones Family Feud uses when they tell us they surveyed 100 members of their studio audience, go ahead.  

DIY surveys are very appealing to those without a research background because they’re cheap, fast, and easy. DIY companies’ heavy use of standardized formats and boilerplate questions means their one-size-fits-all approach fits only situations where the information goals are simple and there is little risk.

Key Takeaway

Use DIY tools only for things that have little impact on your organization, such as which fun events to include at this summer’s office picnic.

#7. I Yam What I Yam

June 1, 2020

“It is what it is” was the number one cliché of 2004 and it’s still with us. People who sum up a situation that way reveal themselves as defeatists who would rather give up than try to rise to the challenge of a difficult situation.

People who say “It is what it is” mistakenly believe they are adding some deep, meaningful insight when all they are offering is a trite, overused, and infuriatingly meaningless cliché. “It is what it is” is a diversionary tactic deployed to convince us there is no action that can be taken when action is needed. This information fallacy has the proposition supported by the premise, which is supported by the proposition, which supports the, well, you know, creating a circle where no useful information is being offered.

Key Takeaway

Look around you in a group meeting. Notice how the people who say such things as “It is what it is,” “whatever,” “push the envelope,” and “think outside the box” not only add nothing of value but also are quick to shift the blame to others for anything that goes wrong. Avoid them.

#6. Apprentices, Journeymen, and Master Craftsmen

July 20, 2020

Apprentice carpenters, painters, bakers, and others contractually obligated themselves to masters who taught them the meticulous process of crafting things by hand. (Michelangelo started his apprenticeship at 13, and you can see where that got him). 

Only after several years, when apprentices had learned the basic skills, could they be promoted to journeymen, where they’d be given opportunities to demonstrate their competency in greater ways on larger and more important projects. Journeymen worked for years until they were able to prove mastery of their craft by passing a grueling exam administered by the guilds that enforced industry quality and performance standards.

The research industry has no such system, so people declare themselves experts when they are not. Most HR departments assume all marketers have market research skills because marketing and market research sound so much alike. Well, so do astronomy and astrology, cat house and house cat. The fundamental difference between the two is simple: the goal of marketing is to influence people, while the goal of research is to understand them.

Key Takeaway

Can you imagine one of your subordinates hiring an attorney who didn’t go to law school, a doctor who didn’t go to med school, or an accountant who doesn’t think that decimals are important? Yet most companies trust their research to those who ask the wrong questions of the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Trust your organization’s intelligence-gathering only to master craftsmen who explain complicated subject matter simply and answer all your questions honestly.

#5. There’s a Hole in the Bucket

July 19, 2021

The verbal musical exchange between Liza and Henry illustrates a deadlock situation — the kind where each of a series of processes is blocked because it awaits another resource. 

The song went around in a big circle only to come all the way back to where it started, with nothing accomplished. The song is amusing, but most deadlock situations are not. The deadlock situation plays out again and again in our business and personal lives when those who have been assigned a task they don’t want to do devote their energy to producing excuses one after another, no matter how lame, instead of getting the job done in spite of the inevitable obstacles. 

Key Takeaway

Note how similar this theme is to #7. I Yam What I Yam. The way people use diversionary tactics to avoid responsibility reveals them as defeatists not interested in rising to the challenge of a difficult situation. Get rid of them.

#4. Colonel Mustard in the Library

July 12, 2021

Clue is a board game where up to six players try to solve a murder mystery by determining who did the foul deed, where the crime took place, and which weapon the murderer used. If you try guessing, you have only one chance in 324 of being right (6 possible suspects x 6 possible weapons x 9 possible rooms = 324 possible combinations). With the penalty for guessing wrong being immediate elimination from the game, the winner is the one who patiently figures out all the components of the solution, not just some of them.

Key Takeaway

I teach researchers about sampling the same way I teach anything: by connecting something new with something they already are familiar with, so they understand the strategic framework.  The lesson here is how to use your analytical needs to determine your sample size, knowing those who don’t give enough thought to their study samples are wasting money and squandering opportunities.

#3. Which of the Seven Dwarfs is the Tallest?

October 29, 2018

Time spent on pointless comparisons is time wasted trying to make something out of nothing by searching in vain for teeny-weeny differences. Pointless comparisons are a staple of advertisers and promoters and marketers. It’s a technique they use to avoid the real issues by misdirecting your attention. Fact: public relations people and publicists never cite real data unless it suits their purposes. 

Key Takeaway

The most common kind of research sold today is the kind that makes executives happy because it uses pointless (in the real world) comparisons to argue statistical precision that tells clients what they want to hear rather than what they need to know. You need a telescope to look ahead, not a microscope.

#2. Who Invented the Drive-Thru Window?

March 11, 2019

This little anthropological piece of Americana is mostly about the colorful history of drive-thru windows at fast-food restaurants. 

Key Takeaway

Read this one as you sit in your car at your favorite fast-foodery. Drive-thru windows account for two-thirds of fast-food sales, so why are they still such frustrating choke points after all these years, with too-long wait times, wrong orders, and soggy fries?

#1. Which Line Is Longer?

May 25, 2020

The famous Müller-Lyer illusion purposely deceives us by tricking our eyes into seeing what isn’t there. The trickery works because our brains process and capture visual clues rapidly and unconsciously. To avoid falling victim to illusions, we need to learn to mistrust our initial impressions by:

    1. Recognizing an illusion when we see it,
    2. Recalling what we know about it, and
    3. Using our brains to override sensory inputs we’ve learned cannot be trusted. 

Key Takeaway

Not all illusions are visual. Cognitive illusions trick us as surely as in- and out-arrows on the ends of lines of equal length. The cost of learning to avoid cognitive illusions has enormous value to people whose jobs require them to use data. It’s one of the ways I help people learn to avoid misinformation traps.

Reader comments

Thanks to all who wrote in with comments. Here are the most common themes

  • “I enjoy having a trustworthy source for things I need to know more about.”
  • “Always a fairly-balanced point of view.
  • “An aid to decision-making of all kinds.”
  • “Explained simply, with great illustrations.”
  • “I learn a lot about a wide variety of subjects.”
  • “Thanks for teaching me to challenge my assumptions.”

My Venn diagram

My three professional experiences intersect at the place where I write my articles and stories. After I choose a topic, I read up on it in great detail, collect lots of data, and follow dozens of leads down dark alleys and off-the-beaten paths, looking for similarities, differences, and hidden connections. I edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite until I’m done. Sometimes I find such interesting things that I end up writing about them and leave the subject I started off writing about until later.

* * *

Bonus

Don’t confuse skepticism with cynicism. Skeptics listen to everyone; cynics listen to no one. 

In days of old, skeptics were branded as heretics for not conforming to established beliefs. Some dared to challenge the universally accepted claims that the sun was the center of the universe, the earth was flat, and fearsome dragons ate ships that sailed too far away from land. Skepticism is from the ancient Greek for inquiring, examining, and reflecting. Skeptics challenge the adequacy and reliability of claims by asking what they are based upon. Those inclined to define skeptics negatively often turn out to be people threatened by challenge and open examination. You can read more about it at What Do You Do When You See a Wet Paint Sign?

 

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
Loading