As I did in Counterintuitive Research Ideas 01, I will continue to offer suggestions for topics that offer opportunities for original research with counterintuitive results. I will very shortly be scrutinizing your research proposals for evidence that you’ve taken these suggestions seriously and are not content to do the same old research paper filled with citations of the opinions of others. They’ll have to show original thinking and, with luck, surprising results. Consider these examples.
When is it a good time to tell customers your product can kill them?
Stock prices for the big four US cigarette makers soared the day after the government settled its case against them and levied billions of dollars of fines. The terms of the settlement forced the companies to stop advertising their products in magazines. The companies cannot show people smoking on billboards. They must of course post ever more frightening messages directly on their packages, warning customers exactly what sorts of painful cancers they are buying. The companies are even required to fund an independently-produced big-budget ad campaign, “The Truth Campaign,” promoting anti-smoking messages of all kinds. Yes, these are paid for by the cigarette companies. And yes, stock prices soared when the details of the settlement were released. Did the ban against cigarette ads work? The links might get you started.
KILLING GOOD IDEAS. How is it possible that business leaders who specialize in killing good ideas succeed, sometimes phenomenally?
They do so by recognizing that even the best ideas are sometimes doomed by development costs or market reluctance. Which would be more interesting as a research topic: following the history of the splendid failures of products that should have worked but never caught on? or the example of an idea that was turned down repeatedly before it finally found its way to market? (I once heard a story of an inventor who wanted to vend hot cheese snacks directly from machines. He got to market eventually, but the product he ended up selling is more like a pretzel bite stuffed with cheese, and a cold one.) On the other hand, Steve Jobs‘s willingness to shoot down brilliant ideas is legendary, and perhaps the key to his success (unless you consider the iPad a pretzel bite).
CHEAP PLAYERS MAKE A BETTER TEAM. Billy Beane was a very highly-paid prospect his first year in baseball but never performed as expected. Then he figured out why. He’d been paid on the basis of irrelevant statistics.
When he became the GM of the Oakland As, he applied ground-breaking statistical analysis tools to his job of building a team through trades and acquisitions. Among his counterintuitive insights: players who make more errors are often better fielders than players who don’t. They’re catching balls that would have been scored hits. When they miss one and are charged an error, it’s often a ball inferior fielders wouldn’t have tried to field (and wouldn’t have been penalized for missing). For pitchers, wins are irrelevant; strikeouts are not. For batters, what matters is OBP, not BA. Beane built his team by bargain-shopping players other teams undervalued. A classic of counterintuitive thinking from the sports world.