Fleeting Human Preferences

On the first leg of my flight from Phoenix to Aspen, I’ve listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s ITConversations podcast on Human Nature. Author of the popular Blink and Tipping Point books, Malcolm Gladwell seems in voice to to find a great way to bring about data, research, and human nature to an interesting place.

In this session he is talking about mistakes organizations made by doing extensive field tests of new products (Herman Miller’s Aeron chairs, New Coke, making strategic decisions based on these tests, only to find in execution, they are dead wrong for how people really feel.

The Aeron chair, Herman Miller’s most successful and profitable chair, was meticulously designed to address a wide array of office chair problems (you would be amazed at how complex a simple chair and its use is). In their test with people who should be attracted (modern designers)– it was disliked consistently. The people responsible for buying chairs for companies hated it too. But it persevered, and was/is a raging success.

He highlights some os in the execution of the tests, as Pepsi tipped the scales of their “Pepsi Challenge” by having people only do a sip taste test (the results are different when subjects have to drink a full can of a sweeter cola), and how the tests are foiled when the identification is not between 2 different products, but telling which one is different between 2 samples of Product A and one of Product B. And did extensive internal, conclusive tests of their New Coke, that flopped like a dropped anvil when released as a product.

The point (I think) made is that human preferences are not a fixed permanent entity. And when we are asked to explain choices, it can even affect our initial preference knowing we are asked to rationalize it. Furthermore, Gladwell argues that when presented with things that are very new, novel, and innovative, his research shows that when in an unsure place of judgment, human nature’s first reaction is to go negative on it.

I find this rather fascinating in education, given an increasing desire to “assess”, “measure”, “evaluate” learners perceptions of materials and their learning in general, that we too, like Coke and Herman Miller, may get caught up in the permanence of these human expressed perceptions, which may turn out to be more fluid. I know this makes things more complex, but that is the realm of human nature and preferences. I also lack an answers, but it should give some second thought to those immediate post event, post learning “measures” which are charted up so nicely and convincing.

Preferences are fleeting… that’s what I took away. This dog gives it 4 paws up.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Excellent post. Meticulous design and perseverance trump opinion polls. This is one reason the long tail phenomenon is so interesting, and one reason why facile, “evaluation” driven implementations of “student-centered learning” can do students a tremendous disservice.

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