Using Casual Observation to Generate Research Ideas
Casual observation is often a useful tool in sparking topics for academic research. To illustrate how this works, let’s consider three paradoxes about price.
Paradox 1: How much you paid either matters a lot, or it doesn’t matter at all
- We all know someone who, years later, still raves about the $90 dress she purchased for $6 through machinations involving a clearance rack, store credit cards, a fistful of coupons, and a doe-eyed cashier.
- We all know someone who has purchased something extremely expensive mostly because it was extremely expensive (i.e., conspicuous consumption).
- We forget the prices of almost everything we buy. (Can you remember how much tomatoes cost? What about the shirt you’re wearing?)
- Many products are described by their inherent or observable characteristics, but some are defined by price as the primary dimension. Over time, underpaying or overpaying can become a feature of a product. In these circumstances, price effectively takes on a hedonic role (e.g., I like it because it was really expensive or inexpensive).
- Although price is one of the most important attributes when purchasing a product, it’s usually irrelevant after the purchase.
Paradox 2: Price isn’t monotonic
Observation: High prices sometimes indicate high quality, but sometimes low prices indicate high quality.
Inference: Most attributes are monotonic (i.e., the attribute and how much we like it covary in the same direction; e.g., as the quality of cheese increases, we like it more). However, price isn’t monotonic.
Paradox 3: Social factors can disrupt price
Observation: Most of us work a roughly consistent set of hours in exchange for an income (i.e., we put a price on our time). But if your neighbor offered to pay you to help clean out his basement, you’d be weirded out and likely refuse any compensation.
Inference: Price is not intrinsic; social norms can dramatically affect how we price our time.
Any one of these basic observations could initiate a line of research to evaluate whether the inference is valid, the circumstances that modulate the inference, and the mechanisms that cause it. Next time you’re struggling to develop a research idea, start by paying attention to interesting patterns in everyday life.