The Wason Task and new business

wasonPsychologists or Behavioural Economists as they now like to be called have used a logic task called the Wason Selection Task as a measure of people’s reasoning powers.

It is one of those pesky little tests that ‘they’ use to prove we are not rational thinking beings. And then extrapolate from there…QED people are not to be trusted and so on.

The task works like this: imagine there are cards which always have a letter on one side and a number on the other.

You are shown, flat on the table, four cards. Their up-facing sides show

“E”, “G”, “7”, “6”

And you are told that you need to test this rule: “All cards with a vowel on one side have an even number on the other side.”

Which cards do you need to turn over to test if this rule is true? The answer is further down the page, have a stab at it.

Most people fail at this test – 80% (I did).  But what is interesting to me is that when the same test is put to a group the pass rate goes up to 75% as described by Tom Stafford in his brilliant essay – titled ‘What is the evidence of using rational argument to change people’s minds?’ He writes,  “But what is often held up as a testimony to our irrationality can also be a laboratory for examining our rationality. Whilst the selection task is normally completed by individuals, you can also ask small groups to try and solve the task.

When you do this, two remarkable things happen. Firstly, the success rate jumps massively so that most groups solve the task correctly (75% or more, compared to a success rate of less than 10% for individuals). Secondly, we can observe the process of discussion that generates the correct solutions, enabling us to discern something powerful and encouraging about group reasoning.”

Firstly that is interesting to me because of the question  – What is it that new business people need to do today? Can they provide any logic in their proposal, is there any need to build an economic case for example for the prospect to change?

And secondly the process that buyers of creative services sometimes go through to select an agency. The way I see that process in short is that there are a  group of people client side sitting around a table discussing the need to change their agency.  The conversation might have occurred a few times before but no action was taken.  This time it is different.  They have all agreed on the need for change.

It is not a conversation we (agencies) are privy to but we could imagine it, right? What was said, what they were annoyed about etc. Boy don’t they moan!  What do they want the moon on a stick?

So someone client side is sent out to speak with agencies.  Who do you think will be sent out?  And who will they be sent out to meet?  This is the issue in my opinion that agencies don’t think about enough.  They need to imagine this situation more clearly to understand their chances of winning new business.

Who has been sent to meet your agency in the past? My experience is the Marketing Director goes to meet his favoured replacement to talk with them.  Most likely they were referred to him or he loves their current famous work or met them at an event where they presented etc.  The Marketing Director then gets their Marketing Manager or another exec go get proposal from other agencies.  Agencies they are aware of because they’ve been direct mailing them, cold calling them or they find them on google.

These agencies are what I call column fodder, occupying columns C, D… They’re needed for benchmarking – be that on price or ideas.  It’s all free why wouldn’t you go get some free consulting?

Just from that scenario above who did you think will win the business? Without even seeing the pitch or the prices who do you think will win any why? The one met by the marketing directors team or the one met by the marketing director?

Back to the Wason Task in experiments using this task, over 80% of people test the rule by picking the cards showing “E” and “6” and they are wrong. I am in this group by the way, were you?

The correct answer is that you need to turn over the “E” and the “7” cards. If the “E” card doesn’t have an even number on the other side, the rule is false – a vowel did not lead to an even number.

Similarly, if the “7” card has a vowel on the other side, the rule has also been shown to be false – a vowel led to a non-even number.

Turning over the “6” card doesn’t tell you anything, since the rule doesn’t say anything about what even numbers cards ought to have on the other side (i.e. it doesn’t say that non-vowels can’t lead to even numbers too).

Now consider a second situation: Another version of the Wason Test

You are serving at a bar and have to enforce the rule that if a person is drinking beer, they must be over 20 years of age. The four cards below have information about people sitting at a table. One side of the card tells you what a person is drinking and the other side tells their age. Which card or cards must you turn over to see if the rule is being broken?

beer    coke     25    16

The correct answer is the cards with beer and 16. About 75 per cent of people get this one right as individuals. Why is this so when only one in four get the previous version right? How is that people are seemingly more intelligent with drinks and ages of drinkers than with letters and numbers?

It is  because of social intuition isn’t it?  It is a situation we are familiar with and we can imagine it clearly and understand the why of the test.

Let me tie this together, back to new business, when I spell out to agency owners who buyers most likely buy from which tallies with the way agencies actually get new business in – i.e 85% buy from a referral, QED 85% wins are via a referral , they can see who is most likely to win as in the new business scenario example above?  It pricks your social intuition doesn’t it?  You know who is in column A straight away – based on who went to meet the agencies and why the went to those agencies.

But if you simply weren’t aware of that scenario you’d write a proposal etc or answer an RFI  because your logic is faulty and you are not focusing on how buyers buy but how you want to sell.

Now how do we move from column fodder to column A – is there enough info in this post to know what to do? What else do you need to know? Who would know it? Or would you bail out of this opportunity?


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