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Where’s your focus in your focus group?

Fiona PannellFocus Groups, once the mainstay of the creative development process, have come under fire in recent years. Some companies, such as Yahoo, have already outlawed them on the basis that the correlation between stated intent and actual behaviour is usually low. They are criticised for being an unnatural environment where participants are asked to articulate explanations for what is normally unconscious.

However there are many uses that focus groups have that can’t be replicated with other methodologies, such as creative brainstorming, language exploration and understanding social and cultural influences, so within market research they will always be needed. But as much as knowing when they should be used it’s about knowing how to set them up to be as robust as possible in order to eliminate some of the biases that give focus groups a bad name.

One such bias is that of self-awareness. In our day to day lives, for the majority of time, we think and act without self-awareness. When we are in the supermarket selecting a shampoo there are a number of unconscious mental shortcuts that are guiding our decision making rather than anything conscious. However in market research generally and in focus groups specifically we are asking people to bring the unconscious into consciousness and become self-aware in order to tell us what they do and why.

Recently I read an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology about the effects of self-awareness on the consumption of full fat spreads. This was a psychological study of students who were, in a supermarket setting, given the choice between three butter spreads: full fat, reduced fat and no fat.

Fiona Pannell

The students could try as many spreads as they wanted. For half of the participants a mirror was placed behind the table that the spreads were on. Those in the mirror group ate less of the full fat spread than those in the control group. The researchers concluded this is due to self-awareness theory; whereby the presence of a mirror led to self-focusing which caused greater behavioural control and healthier food choices.

Reading the results of this experiment made me think about how self-awareness impacts on the answers we give in focus groups. Focus groups are often held in a viewing facility with a two way mirror. Like the butter experiment it is possible that the mirrors surrounding the focus group participants can affect their behavioural control by increasing self-focusing. For some topics of investigation this may not be a problem, it may even be a benefit. For others, such as testing the desirability of a new high fat snacking food the mirror could add a secret confounding variable that could prove fatal for the new snack.

In the case of the snack food research the solution is simple, to minimise the effects of self-focusing hold the group in a room with a discrete video camera linked up to the clients instead of in a viewing room.

As researchers we need to be mindful that the conditions in which we ask people questions have an impact on the results. We need to be aware when a method is appropriate but just as importantly, when it is not, and we need to always think about how we can maximise validity within fieldwork.

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