The Difference Between What People Want, And What They Say They Want


I read a critical email Thought Catalog received and the whole point of the email really struck me, because I wonder if the writer would agree with his premise if it was repeated back to him.

He said, “if you want people to take you seriously and gain a reputation, stop allowing this filth to be published.”

If you want people to take you seriously and gain a reputation…

The writer is saying, if you want people to like you, you need to give them things they say they like and respect. The problem with this is people don’t want what they say they want. Remember that Henry Ford said if he would have asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.

People say they want things that will make them look intelligent or thoughtful (longform, in-depth journalism, “art” writing) but they don’t actually read those things in the numbers they read fun, light-hearted lists about being in your 20’s, or dating advice articles, creepy entertainment, or some of the scandalous anonymous posts we receive, or — yes, articles that compile the best responses to human questions on AskReddit. Pageviews will back this up every single time.

Let’s look at an example.

Michael Koh spent ~4 hours researching and writing an in-depth article exploring The Fall And Rise Of Cities: Why 20-Somethings Are Moving Into Urban Areas. It’s a really interesting subject that I think about all the time. It got ~9k pageviews. By contrast, here’s an article that took him ~25 minutes to format, 21 Women Reveal What It Was Like To Have Sex With A Large Or Small Penis. This one received 565k pageviews.

Another example: in recent memory the article that took me the longest to write was Why Be Offended? in which I looked at outrage culture and the negative impact it can have on a person’s mental health — 2.5k pageviews. Compare this with 8 Awesome Benefits Of Sleeping Naked which took around an hour and got over 2 million pageviews. People tell me they like the former article much better and that that is what they want me to write, but their actions tell a different story.

Why should anyone operate on the model of giving people what they say they want if people don’t actually choose it when it’s available? Why build up a reputation as someone who provides lengthy informative or artistic work if almost no one is in the market for lengthy informative or artistic work?

It’s not just media, think about how often we see this in our lives. People say they want a partner who is generous and kind and a good person, but they’ll trade some of those qualities for a hot body. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, we’re human, we don’t exist on rationality alone.

Here’s a more in depth look at the low value of giving people what they say they want from Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk on spaghetti sauce.


For years the spaghetti sauce makers had been running focus groups and asking them what they want. People said they wanted culturally authentic spaghetti sauce (even though they didn’t) and when Prego came out with a “chunky” variety that flew in the face of tradition, it became extremely popular. Another example Gladwell uses is that when asked what people want in coffee, they respond with “a dark, rich, hearty roast.” In reality only 25-27% of people really want that. Most people want weak coffee cut with milk, but won’t admit it.

Again, what people think they want are faster horses. They don’t think to want a car. They don’t know enough to know that what they want is a car — so we can’t simply listen to people’s feedback and operate based on that.

I view the internet as a place where the kind of capitalism we want to have truly exists. The things people want float to the top and are successful. The things people say they want (along with all the junk no one wants) stays right where it is. It’s also purely capitalistic because we can have as many pretty narratives as we want to about how people lose respect for brands with bad reputation or websites that aren’t longform, traditional, and “high-quality” but that’s all they are — narratives. The data of people’s actions speak louder than the way they try to explain them.

People say they want reputation, but what they really want are results. They want to be entertained, they want answers to questions they are too embarrassed to ask, they want vicarious scandal.

If you want to know what people really want, look at what they do. Consult actual numbers. Experiment. Just don’t listen to what they say. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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