30 March 2010

Fast Food Research - Not Nutritious, Leading to Flabby Reasoning

Yesterday's hot news out of the Rotman School of Business, namely that exposure to fast food logos causes us to speed up, because the logos of fast food franchises suggest, you know, fast, is a great example of positivist pseudo-science. The full paper is here and with a few seconds of critical analysis, one can easily see enough holes to populate the phony Swiss cheese used on a Subway sandwich. One hint, for example: what may have been demonstrated is the effect of pervasive fast food marketing on impulse and desire, rather than on cognitive processing in general, the latter being the suggestion of the paper; the former being a phenomenon that has been well-understood by marketing types for years. (And for a much better treatment of marketing phenomena in general, you may want to check out Terry O'Reilly's great radio series, The Age of Persuasion.) There are many other methodological problems with the research design that jumped out at me immediately. As research, I would rate it a fail; as marketing for Rotman, however... hmmm...

Positivist research presumes that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves that can be discovered through empirical studies. Although this is true in natural systems (neither the Sun nor the Earth particularly care what we believe in terms of one going around the other), human systems are something else altogether. I deal with this in the methodology section of my thesis, essentially demonstrating how models of human systems are generative - the way we think governs the way we react and interact in human situations, and the way we (are often conditioned to) act governs the way we think. What is important in human systems research (i.e., almost all research that happens in business schools, for instance) is to acknowledge our subjectivity in the assumptions we bring to our supposed hypotheses. If not, we run the risk of concluding nonsense; when pronounced from the bully pulpit of an august business school like Rotman, that indeed may affect with way we think about human systems, and therefore the way we create and govern human systems (like organizations).

So, thanks to my friend, Leigh Himel, I offer you the research to demonstrate that pie is better than cake. Proof positive that positivist research in human systems is often as flaky as a pie crust, and as crummy as a devil's food cake. (Oh, and by the way, Happy Birthday, Leigh!)

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Leigh said...

Great post Mark. It's funny how people equate "research" + "artifact with reputation" as = truth without taking too much time to look at either the methodology or the subjective inputs that the research is based on.

We are particularly guilty of it in marketing.

And thanks for the bday wishes :)

Sam Ladner said...

Totally enjoyed both your post, and Cake Is Better Than Pie (Thanks, Leigh!).

Don't you find it interesting, Mark, that on the one hand, Roger Martin is trumpeting socio-cultural, interpretivist research methods such as ethnography, while at the same time, his colleagues are producing more and more psychological, positivistic research?

I guess we can't really blame Roger for this gap; he doesn't control his colleagues after all. But it does show how hard it is for organizations as a whole to recognize that subjectivity is a key component to understanding the world.

I guess I'm like you. I'm a committed subjectivist, a critical realist (no silly relativism for me, please) but continually frustrated by the "vast positivist conspiracy" that pollutes the research landscape.