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But psychographics may not be that ominous after all. Scientific purists argue that market researchers aren't really getting inside people's minds--they're just manipulating ordinary shopping and demographic data to make it look that way. Carrie Hollenberg, a senior consultant at SRI Consulting Business Intelligence, says many companies have created psychographic types by merely "assigning a company's customers to various groups with colorful names and descriptions. That's not using true psychological traits to get into who people really are." Hollenberg's firm owns a personality-profiling system called VALS (values, attitudes and lifestyle survey) that was developed in 1989 using research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford; she says VALS gets the psych job done correctly.
In fact, it's likely the vagaries of consumer impulse will continue to befuddle the best prognosticators at least some of the time. No matter how much data suggest otherwise, a nervous mother of two may get roped into riding a roller coaster and discover a new passion for risk. A stilettoed fashionista might wobble into Wal-Mart. Some things will always be unpredictable.