Groupthink In Focus Groups

By Tamara Irminger-Underwood

Any experienced market research moderator can pepper you with examples of “groupthink” taking over a focus group.  With the optimal number of focus groups being around 6 participants, it takes only one dominant personality in the group to affect how the others respond. And it isn’t just dominant personalities that can influence others; groups of more introverted people are also subject to “groupthink”, it just presents itself differently.

Projective Techniques in Focus Groups

Because much of qualitative market research is rooted in psychology, at InterQ, we use a number of different techniques in focus groups that get around the pitfall of groupthink. These proven methods are referred to as “projective techniques” and including them in focus groups is one way that moderators can ensure that participants aren’t downplaying their own responses as a result of groupthink. Some of these techniques are also useful in side-stepping the cognitive biases that participants are subject to.

No two market research studies are alike, and no two focus groups are alike. Depending on the personalities of focus group participants, the hypothesis we’re testing, and the types of insights our clients are after determines which of the many projective techniques we use. As with any research methodology, some are appropriate in certain circumstances, but not others. When we design a market research study, we carefully select the techniques and methodologies that are most appropriate for the study.

Let’s explore some of the projective techniques that we’ve found to be really effective at combating groupthink AND getting deeper insights.

Talk Balloons/Word Bubbles

Presenting participants with talk balloons or word bubbles is an effective way to get participants to pare down their thoughts into imaginative and coherent bits. Having participants fill in talk balloons gets them to distill what they’re trying to convey. These are great exercises to use for branding and concept testing. Because this exercise is given to individuals, each person has the opportunity to think for him/herself before the ideas are shared with the group.

Personification Exercises

While it sometimes feels corny to ask participants to attribute personality traits to a brand or concept, it is a very effective technique for brand studies. Learning how participants perceive a brand or concept and what traits they assign is helpful when designing logos and advertisements; creating taglines; and developing advertising copy and text used in communications. In a recent study, we asked participants which famous person they thought of when considering different domestic airlines. The answers were very illuminating, not to mention funny.

Billboards, or 3 Words

When you’re driving past a billboard, you don’t have time to read a lot of text. The images and words need to quickly communicate a brand or product. The same technique can be used in focus groups when wanting to understand the ‘snapshot’ of a brand or product. This exercise can easily be done out loud, with all participants having the option to spitball their three words, or done individually with participants writing down their words on paper. The moderator will read the room and decide which approach is best, especially to avoid ‘groupthink’.

There are many other projective techniques we employ in our studies, but the above three are our most commonly used. Moderating focus groups is a constant balancing act. The goal is always to maximize participation, without succumbing to groupthink.

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