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Fact, Fiction and the Curated Self

10 May

kitten-looking-in-mirror-sees-lionThat idea that people distort the “truth” when telling you about themselves is nothing new to seasoned qualitative researchers.

My first research job out of grad school involved interviewing jail detainees about their drug and unsafe sex behaviors. Being let out of their cell to talk to the lady with the clipboard and drink the coca cola she offered seemed like a treat until she presented the urine sample cup. But, they were already in jail, and she assured them it was anonymous and confidential, so they always complied.

The point, of course, was to obtain objective data about drug use. The data were used to guide the state legislature in allocating treatment dollars, and targeting the right type of treatment needs. The northern part of the state needed heroin treatment while the southern part of the state needed methamphetamine treatment.

Corroborating what they said with what turned up in their urine was not the focus of the study. But as a researcher new to the field, I was interested in that. That curiosity about the “reported self” vs. the “actual self” would come to play a central role in my work.

My next research job at a brand consulting firm relied solely on the “self report.” No more running urine samples to the lab after the interviews. Now the goal was to probe and understand the motivations and perceptions of consumers.

In consumer research, self-reported behavior is taken with a grain of salt because we know what people say they do, is subject to distortion. So, we tend to rely on analytics or other empirical means to observe behavior when possible. What we do explore in qualitative research are motivations, perceptions and benefits derived. And these subjectivities can be deciphered by getting people to talk about themselves. Facts are somewhat irrelevant in the process. It is the presentation of self that becomes the focus of study.

In the digital age, the notion of the “curated self” is moving out of qual research circles and is becoming part of popular culture. Surely you’ve been invited to “build your personal brand” or “take control of your digital identity.” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz notes in his article Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable that “Once you’ve looked at enough aggregate search data, it’s hard to take the curated selves we see on social media too seriously. Or, as I like to sum up what Google data has taught me: We’re all a mess.”

As qualitative researchers, we start from the premise that what you tell us about yourself is a mash-up of fact, fiction and fantasy. Our job is not to reconcile the “real self” with the “curated self,” but rather to connect the dots between them, and then continue connecting those dots to our clients’ business needs.

I founded SayWhat because I have a natural curiosity about how people find meaning, value and desire in their lives. We are here to help you understand your audience, your customers, and your potential growth opportunities by asking good questions and then listening to people talk about themselves.

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