Conducting research is rather similar to quantum physics

A study released this month by leading children's charity Barnardo's reveals that more than half the British population believes children behave like animals and are a danger to others.

Conducting research is rather similar to quantum physics
Conducting research is rather similar to quantum physics

However, the controversial results were dismissed by commentator David Fraser, a former probationary officer and crime expert, who argued that if you ask the questions in the right way, you can get a survey to say almost anything.

His remark was subsequently refuted by Barnardo's chief executive Martin Narey, who added angrily: "This sort of talk and attitude does nothing to help those young people who are difficult, unruly or badly behaved to change their ways."

What is irrefutable is that the way in which you conduct research is inextricable from the result.
Anyone who has sat in on, or moderated qualitative group research is only too aware that their very presence makes a difference and that the tone in which a quantitive questionnaire is set changes the outcome.

It's all a bit like quantum physics, which was a big feature of a recent account planning conference I attended - must be something to do with the publicity surrounding the Hadron Collider and the latest James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

The very act of observing an event, or its outcome, affects how it pans out. Many of the theories of quantum physics - the EPR Paradox, the Observer Effect and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - all support this case. I refer you to Wikipedia here, as explanations would take up the rest of this magazine.

Academic as this may seem, it is vitally important. The idea that you can prove anything if you ask a question in the right way should be front of mind every time you see a piece of research or commission a new study.

The notion that research subjects operate in some kind of vacuum, or that you can still find significant numbers of respondents who are unaware of advertising, promotional and marketing techniques, is very out of date and raises a question mark over the supposed ideal of virgin respondents.

In addition, creating a PR storm around research has an effect on how people think about the topic.

Barnardo's has created media interest through the publication of its research - it is too early to tell whether it will achieve the objectives of its campaign, but the charity has certainly created a talking point.

Sue Unerman is chief strategy officer at MediaCom, sue.unerman@haymarket.com

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