What Do You Think About…?

–Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Have you ever heard of Carlsberg?  Together with Tuborg, for a long time these two breweries have sold most of the beer in Denmark. Brewer Jacobsen founded Carlsberg in 1847.  His son founded Tuborg.  They were not a loving family.

At one point, some marketing people wanted to know more about consumer attitudes and behaviors and Gallup sent out interviewers to ask, among many other things, about people’s beer brand preferences and consumption.

When the data were analyzed, what the consumers said about drinking Tuborg matched what the brewery sold of beer. But when the answers for Carlsberg afficionados were extrapolated, it didn’t even begin to mirror how much Carlsberg beer was sold.

What happened here?

The analysts thought deeply about this, and they came up with that Tuborg was consumed by “the educated” while Carlsberg was preferred by “the working man”.  When you ask anybody on a Saturday morning in the midst of their family how much beer they have drunk the day before – supposedly with their colleagues after work – it is more likely they would admit to having had two than five or more bottles. If you have worked physically hard, being more thirsty would be a reasonable effect, and anecdotal evidence supported this hypothesis.

The next time, the interviews happened at the workplace and the numbers matched much better actual sales for both brands.

This was to me back in school – and perhaps to you now – a real-life introduction to what social scientist call social conformity.  It accounts for a lot of the variances between what people say they will do or have done and what they actually ended up doing.

The difference is often bigger if you ask people in person than if they fill out an anonymous questionnaire online – but some categories of people will not be represented at all if you only use online questionnaires.  Hence, for in-person interviews, one can include a social conformity panel – a set of innocently looking questions that show how likely it is that this person has not answered truthfully but could have been swayed to conform to a social norm.  When these questions are included in international research packets, populations from more Embedded/Collective cultures are more likely to choose more socially acceptable answers than people from more Autonomy focused/Individualistic cultures.

This old story about Carlsberg came back when I listened to the podcast about Collective Illusion below:

I have already shared the podcast as a post on LinkedIn, but I thought it deserved to be put into this context.

Among the illusions shared were:

  • Respect for each other is among the most desired behaviors among a majority of Americans, but they falsely believe that this is not important to anybody else.
  • Trusting and trustworthiness is in the top three of what people want, but they falsely believe that other people don’t care that much about it.

Two things tickled me about the findings that Todd Rose mentioned on Scott Barry Kaufman’s podcast.

The first tickle is that Social Media places us in a set of groups with whom we probably feel some kind of belonging, and that reinforces the same effect as being asked in front of your wife how much beer you had before you got home last night:  you don’t want to get into trouble with your group/wife, so you answer what you think they/she want(s) to hear.

The second tickle is that this has such a strong affect in ”the land of the free.”  In cultural research, Americans consider themselves highly individualistic and autonomy loving.  The more libertarian you claim to be, the more individualistic you supposedly should be as well.  After all, not depending on anybody is what libertarian ideals are all about.  And yet, among GOP voters, over 50% will in public claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen while, according to Todd Rose, only 14% believe that if asked in confidence.

I am not out to have a political fight with GOP voters; I am just asking in general:  Why do people – GOP or DEM – who claim to highly value autonomy walk into this social conformity trap to the point where they think respect and trust is something nobody else cares about?

I am so puzzled – and one reason is that I don’t recognize the people showing up in these statistics or the people “yelling” on Twitter among any of the Americans I know.

If you know any, please send them a link to the podcast.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Thanks, Chris,

    I found it so relatable and yet, how many scientific findings have been based on similar methods – without the opportunity to check if the answers made sense.

    I recall a similar incident where the Danish minister of justice was questioned on some answers he had presented based on calculations from DOJ. The decimal had been misplaced and the numbers showed that all police officers could go on leave for a year based on the accumulated overtime. Fortunately, it was not as bad as that. But it goes to show that number sense is a scarce commodity.

  2. Carlsberg is one of the worlds great beers…personally I like 3 or 4 on a weekend night and will never understate the number:)

    The other place where people will invariably understate alcohol intake is on medical questionnaires of course.

    Cheers to an interesting and thoughtful article Charlotte!