Getting to the Right Psychological Level in Your Focus Groups

  • SumoMe

An awareness of the levels of group interaction can improve your focus groups

Too many focus groups are conducted at a superficial level. They sound all right, with people relaxed, interacting, even talking up a storm. They are producing the kind of “new stuff” that makes product managers happy. But they are often sound and fury signifying nothing. Focus groups should be more than polite chit-chat around a specific subject.

Too many focus groups are conducted not as spontaneous discussions, but by marching the participants through the moderator’s guide in a sequential manner: A question is asked, such as “What product(s) are you presently using under these circumstances?” The participants then discuss their product usage until the moderator senses that there is no more to be gained, or until the allotted number of minutes have elapsed. The moderator then moves the group on to the next question, such as “Why do you use this product?” Then, after an appropriate period of time, or after a few probes, moves on to “What would get you to try a new product.” You get the idea. My point is that the moderator is all too often moving people from one superficial cluster of verbalizations to another, sometimes to the delight of the product manager.

Don’t get taken in: When you ask questions in groups, what you get back are verbalizations. These verbalizations may or may not accurately reflect people’s thoughts (beliefs, opinions, attitudes, ideas) and emotions (desires, hopes, wishes, fears, angers). Ever since we were children, we have all learned to respond to questions. We have been badgered by questions from parents, teachers, bosses, other authority figures, friends, employees, and everyone else we interact with. What have we learned in all those years? That when we give the wrong answer, especially to opinion questions, we can get in trouble. So, we have learned to give the safe answer. Or at least the answer that is least likely to incriminate us, or offend others, or create controversy, or make us or others look bad. Most of us try to project a certain persona of intelligence, competence, and other attributes that we think people expect of us. In other words, when answering questions, most people do not only answer on the basis of the truth, but color their answer according to the impression they wish to create.

In order to understand what goes on in focus groups, and how to get more out of them, it is necessary to understand, recognize and know how to deal with the levels on which people operate in groups.

There are five distinct levels. They often overlap, and people often fluctuate between adjacent levels with rapidity.

The Superficial Level

The level of social chit-chat, of small talk. What goes on in the reception area, or at the beginning of the group as people introduce themselves.

The Games Level

The level of social gambits, bluffs, one-upmanship and role playing. Where people try to outdo each other, or try to create an impression of being a particular type of person. For instance, the ingenue, the skeptic who can’t be fooled, the sophisticate, the good-ol’-boy, the traditionalist, creative idea generator, etc. Moderators and clients are often taken in by verbalizations which are nothing more than expressions of these games, rather than true opinions of the issue at hand.

Defensive or Protective Level

People have a built in Defense Department. When they perceive anything that can possibly hurt them, they go into a variety of defensive maneuvers designed to protect themselves. These defenses are designed to protect people from feeling embarrassed, humiliated, rejected, ignored, or unimportant. Most are attempts to enhance self-esteem. These defenses are usually disguised as rational, reasonable responses, which sound quite articulate. However, they are not responses to the issue under discussion, but are really reactions to the perceived threat. Again, many moderators and clients are fooled by these defenses masquerading as reasons.

Some of the defenses most encountered in focus groups are rationalization, denial, projection, evasion, diversion (smokescreens, red herrings), distortion and omission. For instance, if you ask a series of groups of Porsche owners why they bought a Porsche, you will probably get a song and a dance in each group about styling and engineering. You will probably have to go to indirect means to get to what a Porsche does for an owner’s self image and sense of masculinity. Similarly, if you query groups of physicians about why they have started using a new drug, you may get the truth, but you may get high-sounding medical rationalizations, when what is really driving them may be, for example, the excitement of trying something new.

A large number of focus groups are conducted on this level. Groups or moderators who are inflexibly formal, logical, strictly sequential, highly intellectual and left-brained are prone to this type of illusory “clarity.” When I open an area for discussion, I get a coherent set of answers. Often, when I start probing further, the client sends me a note to move on. After all, he got his answer, and usually clearly too. But human motivations are rarely so simple. If I get the chance to probe further, I usually discover many deeper and more useful motivators.

Authentic Level

Open, real, candid, honest, genuine responses characterize this level. This is the level where people level with you, where they give it to you straight, insofar as they can genuinely get in touch with their thoughts and feelings (many motivations are not easily accessible). Through words, images, feelings, non- verbals, they communicate where they are really coming from. This level is reached by creating an atmosphere of psychological safety, group support, personal openness, and motivation to communicate simply and directly. It is characterized by congruence. All levels of communication are consistent. The verbalizations are energized with emotion and the non-verbals agree. When people are probed from different directions, perhaps projectively, the picture they present is consistent, although people may cluster with several different motivations.

Sometimes a tip-off that people are on the authentic level is that their motivations seem silly or trivial. For instance, several drugs are prescribed not for their therapeutic efficacy, but so that the physician will not be woken up by phone calls in the middle of the night. Some cancer regimens are prescribed because the decision is more “restful,” as one oncologist expressed it. In other words, the decision is less controversial and easier to defend, even though preliminary data seems to show other regimens to be superior. When you get to the authentic level, Porsche owners might tell you that they have earned the right to have fun, without having to consider practicality. Others might be motivated by a heightened sense of masculinity, or others by what people will think of them (successful, fun loving, macho, etc.). Or, a completely selfish car (“For once in my life, I want to drive what I want to drive.”) Maybe it’s a reward.

So, the authentic level is often just beneath the surface, but people may have trouble accessing or expressing it, or may not want to express it unless the conditions are right.

Unfortunately, too many focus groups are conducted in a stilted, formal, focused, rushed manner which makes the emergence of this type of material rare. In order for participants to express this kind of authenticity, a relaxed, informal, non-judgmental atmosphere must be established. People must be willing and able to say whatever comes to mind. They must be motivated to go a little deeper, without threatening them.

It is sobering, and a little frightening to realize that it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between authentic and defensive verbalizations at face value. Inter- and intra-group verification procedures must be used, such as indirect probes, projective techniques, coming at the issue from a variety of perspectives in different groups, challenging the participants, playing devil’s advocate, encouraging divergent thought, etc. It is this type of verification and deepening process that makes qualitative research so valuable.

The Core level

This level is the cluster of values, attitudes, beliefs, feelings which are usually not consciously accessible, but which provide the most powerful motivations. These are the social mores, ethical standards, personal passions, spiritual values, philosophical doctrines, self-esteem requirements, survival values and deep personal needs which are often not in conscious awareness, and which people are reluctant to share. These are what really move people. If you can tap into one or more of these in a meaningful way, you will move people.

These are almost never tapped by focus groups, or any other kind of marketing research. Focus groups have more chance than any other method of hitting core values, but most moderators are unequipped to reach them, and most product managers have no patience for the kind of probing that is required to get to them. Yet most great marketing campaigns have tapped core values, often ones that have accidently come out of focus groups.

Unfortunately, most focus groups are conducted on the level of superficial, game-playing or defensive verbalization. The more clear, sequential and logical they sound, the more the probability that the client and the moderator are being bamboozled.

The answer to this problem is not “objective” survey research. Surveys tend to be the most superficial and misleading of all research. Virtually no rapport is established, answers tend to be forced into categories, depth probes are not possible, and there is little opportunity for reflective thought and deep feeling. People say the first thing that comes into their minds, often what they want the interviewer to hear. [An upcoming article on qualitative vs. quantitative research will go into more detail.]

Individual Depth Interviews are also not the answer. Contrary to the popular belief that individual depth interviews are necessary for sensitive subjects, it is the group support in focus groups that enables most people to say what they may be uncomfortable expressing.

Running more groups is not the answer, because you may only be getting consistent sets of rationalizations. In other words, you may be verifying that people tend to send up the same smokescreen consistently (i.e., reliability without validity).

The answer is to recognize that focus groups are interpretive research. Their value is highly dependent on the interpreter. So, get an interviewer/interpreter, i.e., moderator who is experienced at hearing between the lines of what is being said and is capable of helping participants get beneath the surface using a variety of techniques. As I am fond of saying, for mundane focus groups any moderator will do. However, there are no mundane focus groups. Do not use amateurs, do not use inexperienced people, do not use people who are experienced but who are not extensively psychologically trained in clinical psychology, group dynamics, communication psychology, and the psychology of problem solving, creative idea generation and decision making at minimum. Good moderators, like good magicians, make it look easy, simple and straightforward, but there is a lot you don’t see. Unfortunately, there are a large number of people who have been doing groups for years, who have much technical knowledge in their field, who can get people talking, who can get people to come up with clear answers in groups, but who don’t check to make sure that the clear answers they get are not consistent rationalizations. These people tend to be all logic, with little human sensitivity. They ask too many questions, and get too many canned answers. They take these canned answers at face value, doing little to verify that they are accessing the truth. (See my article “Getting Beneath the Surface in Focus Groups.”)

I know that the above is self serving. It also happens to be true. Verify it yourself. Ask your researchers (including me) how they know that what they are being told is true. What have they done to check out what they are being told? What are their validity and reliability checks? On the other hand, in all fairness to my fellow researchers, are you allowing enough time in the groups to verify what is being said, or enough groups to come at the information from different directions? If I were to ask you and your product managers if you believe everything you hear and see, you would all instantly say “No!” But that’s a defensive level verbalization. Look at your actions (which do speak louder than words). Are you insisting on verification? If, in effect, you are saying “Ask the question, listen, and move on,” you are being much more gullible than you like to think you are. Think about it. Let’s talk about it, especially in the context of your next research problem.