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“I” Before “They”: How Marketing Managers Can Avoid Personal Biases

“I” Before “They”: How Marketing Managers Can Avoid Personal Biases

Melissa Baucum and Kiwoong Yoo

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Journal of Marketing Research Scholarly Insights are produced in partnership with the AMA Doctoral Students SIG – a shared interest network for Marketing PhD students across the world.

“I would prefer healthier food items at Burger King, even at a premium price. So, I think Burger King’s low-fat ‘Satisfries’ will be a big hit among consumers.”

How often do “I” statements justify marketing decisions? As it turns out, fairly often. It is well established that marketers tend to project their own preferences onto target consumers’ preferences regarding new products or features. This phenomenon is referred to as the “false consensus effect,” which is one of the most prevalent biases studied in psychology. Most marketing executives are aware of this effect and admit that they frequently fall prey to it. Multiple remedies have been suggested to combat such bias in decision making. Managers typically try to eliminate the false consensus effect by deliberately ignoring (or “suppressing”) their own preferences when making marketing decisions based on consumer preferences. Some try to bolster their access to “objective” information for decision making by acquiring related market research. However, how effective is suppressing marketing managers’ personal preferences in reducing the false consensus effect?

In a recent Journal of Marketing Research article, Walter Herzog, Johannes D. Hattula, and Darren W. Dahl explore this question and uncover some surprising dynamics regarding the false consensus effect among marketing managers. Through a series of interviews and studies with marketers, the authors find that the most common approaches to addressing the false consensus effect may surprisingly backfire. This is because the effectiveness of reducing bias by suppressing one’s own preferences depends on the clarity and certainty of the individual’s personal preferences.

More specifically, managers first make predictions about target consumers’ preferences without referring to their personal preferences. At the same time, they self-regulate by asking themselves, “Do my personal preferences affect my predictions about consumer preferences?” If managers have clear personal preferences and are certain about them, they can accurately notice and remove any personal preferences in their predicted preferences. However, in “low certainty” situations, where managers are unsure of their own preferences, this becomes an impossible question to answer. Thus, managers with vague and weakly held preferences deceive themselves; they believe they have addressed false consensus bias by asking the question while simultaneously having not changed much about their thinking. So, suppressing personal preferences in this situation might actually be counterproductive and make managers even more vulnerable to the false consensus effect.

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The bottom line? Marketers with firmly held preferences are the ones who could benefit most from some self-monitoring. However, marketers with loosely held preferences will likely not be safeguarded from the false consensus bias by the same approach; instead, they should remain curious about the consumer without worrying too much about suppressing their own (weakly held) opinions.

We caught up with the authors of this research to hear more about what motivated them to investigate this question and the implications of their findings.

Inspiration for the Research

Q: What was your inspiration for studying the role of the “false consensus effect” from a managerial perspective?

A: In marketing research, cognitive biases such as the false consensus effect are typically studied in a consumer behavior context. It is frequently overlooked that marketing managers are also susceptible to biases. For example, our pilot studies suggest that most marketers are affected by the false consensus effect, and moreover, they consider it important to avoid this bias when predicting consumer preferences. Thus, we decided to learn more about the false consensus effect and its role in a marketing management context. In general, we believe that behavioral science in marketing should not be limited to understanding psychological phenomena in a consumer behavior domain but also explore important behavioral tendencies of marketing managers.

Key Findings

Q: What would you recommend to marketing managers based on the findings from this article?

A: Overall, our findings suggest that marketers can easily suppress strong personal preferences, whereas attempts to suppress weak personal preferences backfire. Hence, we recommend that marketers focus on what they can do (i.e., reduce the false consensus effect for strong preferences) rather than on what they cannot do (i.e., reduce the false consensus effect for weak preferences). Marketers following this recommendation are, on average, less susceptible to the false consensus effect, and their predictions of consumer preferences tend to be more accurate.

The Role of Market Research

Q: Many marketing managers have access to market research, which can serve as the “voice of the consumer” in the boardroom. Given the findings of your results, how should high-certainty and low-certainty managers treat market research information differently?

A: Our Studies 3 and 4 suggest that the false consensus effect causes marketing managers to use market research results in an unsystematic way. Specifically, they are more likely to rely on market research results on consumer preferences if they align with their personal preferences. In contrast, they tend to ignore consumer data that is not consistent with their personal preferences. In other words, marketers use consumer data in an “egocentric” way, which in turn has two implications: First, market research is not necessarily an effective remedy for the false consensus effect (independent of marketers’ certainty level), and second, marketers should keep in mind that the false consensus effect can systematically bias their interpretation and use of market research data.

Q: As firms undergo digital transformation, artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more accessible and prominent for many business operations. Do you believe that incorporating technology can further help marketers avoid the false consensus effect? If so, how do you think AI can affect how marketers reduce or prevent the false consensus effect? 

A: Indeed, this is a very important and interesting topic for further research. On the one hand, one could argue that AI-based decision support systems may help marketers overcome biases such as the false consensus effect. On the other hand, one could argue that marketers may ignore AI-based consumer predictions if they are not in line with their personal preferences (similar to the results in our Studies 3 and 4). In other words, the false consensus effect may systematically affect marketers’ acceptance of AI-based predictions. More research is needed to understand the complex interplay between AI-based decision support systems and marketers’ cognitive biases (such as the false consensus effect).

Future Research Areas

Q: Your study tests these effects with managers predicting consumer preferences. Do you think these results would hold in a B2B context, as well?

A: All studies in our article are based on a B2C context and, thus, we cannot extrapolate our findings to a B2B setting. However, it is conceivable that the false consensus effect is an important bias in B2B contexts as well. In B2B settings, it is essential to create and maintain close interpersonal relationships with members of consumer organizations. Earlier research has shown that social inference biases such as the false consensus effect can negatively affect such interpersonal processes. It would certainly be interesting to find out whether this is also true in B2B settings.

At the beginning of our research project, we interviewed a few marketers on the role of the false consensus effect in marketing practice. Among the interviewees was a marketer working for an IT firm that develops software products for business consumers. At one point in the interview, she mentioned: “The false consensus effect has a huge impact on many marketing managers in my firm. The most frequently used sentence I hear in discussions on what the target consumer wants starts with the phrase: I would want….” Overall, we believe it is important to learn more about the role of the false consensus effect in a B2B context.

Q: Much of the studies were focused on developed markets where many managers may be more individualistic. Do you think your findings would be different in emerging markets like China and India, where many consumers are more collectivistic?

A: On the one hand, it is conceivable that decision-makers from collectivistic cultures are more susceptible to the false consensus effect because of their higher level of interdependent self-construal. On the other hand, one could argue that decision-makers from individualistic cultures are more focused on the “self,” which may increase egocentric tendencies such as the false consensus effect. Very few studies have explored the effect of culture on the false consensus effect, and it would certainly be interesting to learn more about this relationship.

Read the full article:

Herzog, Walter, Johannes D. Hattula, and Darren W. Dahl (2021), “Marketers Project Their Personal Preferences onto Consumers: Overcoming the Threat of Egocentric Decision Making,” Journal of Marketing Research, 58 (3), 456–75.

Melissa Baucum is a doctoral student in marketing, Haslam College of Business, University of Tennessee Knoxville.

Kiwoong Yoo is a doctoral student in marketing, Haslam College of Business, University of Tennessee Knoxville.