You try it all the time--you imagine you are your own customer and you try to successfully predict their desires, their needs, and the future products and services they will buy.

A study from Imperial College led by assistant professor of marketing Johannes Hattula, however, finds that companies cannot accurately put themselves in their customers' shoes. The researchers found that the more empathetic the manager, the more egocentric their predictions of their customers' desires. In other words, empathy makes you think people want what you want.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Hattula details the study, which began with interviews of marketing managers about their personal preferences for specific products and services. Hattula also engaged the empathy of some of the managers by asking them to describe a typical customer and imagine his or her feelings and reactions to a product.

The managers were then asked to take an empathy-measuring survey. "The more empathetic managers were, the more they used their personal preferences to predict what customers would want," Hattula tells HBR. "Another key finding that should get people's attention is that the more empathetic the managers were, the more they ignored the market research on customers that we provided them."

The researchers led managers through exercises, including developing new ad campaigns for a luxury timepiece brand, setting prices for sandwiches in a cafe, and designing a new car, all with the customer base in mind. "In every case, predictions about what customers wanted matched the managers' personal preferences more closely when the managers had been primed to be more empathetic," Hattula says.

Before the managers' predictions, Hattula and his team provided them with market research about the preferences and desires of customers for each specific product. When empathy was induced, however, it activated "the managers' own consumer identities and thus their personal consumption preferences."

"When we [asked] them to imagine customers buying sandwiches at a cafe, they visualized themselves walking into the store and looking at their options and what they might pay," Hattula says. "Once that image is activated, it's a very strong force and influences subsequent decisions."

The experiments found that managers, and humans in general, are strongly "egocentric"--a self-centered force that results in a willingness to "ignore objective data" when they make predictions about their customers.

So what are companies to do when they want to put themselves in their customers' shoes? Because the experiments found that empathy "can backfire" when you're trying to pinpoint your customers' wants and desires, Hattula tried to see if managers aware of the bias predicted any differently.

During another experiment, his team asked one group of managers to predict if a video game developer should sign an endorsement deal with soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo. The managers who were not told about the empathy bias made predictions that ignored the market research and made egocentric predictions. "However, managers who were made aware of the bias were able to check it," Hattula tells HBR.

Hattula offers a simple, useful suggestion for the next time you're about to put yourself in your customers' shoes: Bring in people who fall into your customer demographic, or even bring in your actual customers and just talk to them about their true preferences.

Published on: Feb 20, 2015