Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why asymmetric dominance demonstrates preference inconsistency and spoils market research tools

(Another old CB handout LaTeXed into the blog.)

Recall from the example of ``The Economist'' [in Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational] that the options to choose from are

$A$: paper-only for 125
$B$: internet only for 65
$C$: paper + internet for 125

When presented with a choice set $\{B,C\}$ about half of the subjects pick $B$; when presented with choice set $\{A,B,C\}$ almost all subjects pick $C$. This presents a logic problem, since if C is better than B then there is no reason why it's not chosen when A is not present; if B is better than C, then there is no reason why C is chosen when A is present.

Logic is not our problem.

The reason we care about ``rational'' models is that they are the foundation of market research tools we like. In particular, we like one called utility. The idea is that we can assign numbers to choice options in a way that these numbers summarize choices (sounds like conjoint analysis, doesn't it?). Once we have these numbers we can decompose them along the dimensions of the options (yep, conjoint analysis!) and use the decomposition to determine trade-offs among products. We denote the number assigned to choice $X$ by $u(X)$.

As long as there is one number * that is assigned to each choice option by itself, we can use utility theory to analyze actual choices and determine what the drivers of customer decisions are. One number per option. Consumers facing a number of options pick that which has the highest number; this is called ``utility maximization,'' is extremely misunderstood by the general public, politicians, and the media, and all it means is that the customers choose the option they like the best, as captured by their consistent choices.

That is the problem.

Suppose we observe $B$ chosen from $\{B,C\}$; then utility theory says $u(B) > u(C)$. But then, if we observe $C$ picked from $\{A,B,C\}$ we have to conclude $u(C) > u(B)$. There are no numbers that can fit both cases at the same time, so there is no utility function. No utility function means no conjoint, no choice model, no market research --- unless we account for asymmetric dominance itself, which requires a lot of technical expertise. And forget about simple trade-off methods.

Meaning what?

Suppose we want to ignore the mathematical impossibility of coming up with a utility function (who cares about economics anyway?) and decide to measure the part-worths by hook or by crook. So we divide the products in their constituent parts, in this case $p$ for paper and $i$ for internet.  The options become $\{(p,125), (i,65),(p+i,125)\}$. We can try to make a disaggregate estimation of the part-worths using a conjoint/tradeoff model.

The problem persists.

If $(i,65)$ is chosen over $(p+i,125)$, that means that the part-worth of $p$ is less than 60. That is the conclusion we can get from the choice of $B$ from $\{B,C\}$. If $(p+i,125)$ is chosen over $(i,65)$, that means that the part-worth of $p$ is more than 60. That is the conclusion we can get from the choice of $C$ from $\{A,B,C\}$.

A marketer using these two observations to design an offering cannot determine the part-worth of one of the components: the $p$ part. It's above 60 and under 60 at the same time.


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* Up to any increasing transformation of the utility function numbers, if you want to get technical; we don't, and it doesn't matter anyway.