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How Are You Feeling About Your Focus Groups?

Science has proven that the data that enters your prefrontal cortex (the logical decision-making center of your brain) is first filtered through the limbic system which is the center for your emotions.  In short, everyone feels before they think.  This is an indisputable fact of science.

For those of us in the insights business, the quest is to further our understanding of the emotional drivers of choice.  Some will tell you that traditional focus groups and ethnography can achieve this.  They would be wrong.

Traditional focus groups get at four things:  perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes (or POBAs for short).  In that setting, where strangers show up to share, it is rare that participants discuss the emotions behind their PSP3OBAs.  Conversely, ethnographies are a behavioral technique.  During observation, you sometimes get lucky by spotting body language or a facial expression triggered by an emotion.  This information is only useful if you understand the root cause.

To more effectively “peel back the onion” we rely on behavioral psychology.  According to decades of research, trust is the foundation for the sharing of emotions in a group setting.

The Role of Trust

Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon the affirming response or behaviors of others.  It is, specifically, affective trust we seek in qualitative research:  having mutual interpersonal care and some emotional bonds.  (This is different than cognitive-based trust which is defined as individual beliefs about a person’s reliability, dependability, and competence.)

Achieving affective trust is a step-wise process.  At first, individuals will share based on a calculation of how others are likely to respond and the perceived risks and rewards.  Among strangers, there is high-perceived risk of sharing too deeply.  In their current design, focus groups remain stuck at the cognitive level.  Affective trust is where each participant has internalized each person’s intentions and group cohesion is based on shared goals and values.  Internalization of these intentions is key and requires group interaction prior to the in-person meeting.

Building a Better Focus Group

Armed with this knowledge, we at StandPoint set out to reinvent the “focus group” with the goal of carefully building trust with study participants in advance of a group meeting.  It only requires a few changes in how we engage and interact.  We call the process We©, and you can check out the details here.

So, if you’re feeling blue about your focus groups, there is a solution.  Behavioral psychology provides much needed inspiration for how to better connect with the real people that buy your products and services.  And trust, as with most human interactions, is the essential ingredient.

Definitions adapted from the following:  Lewicki, Roy J. and Tomlinson, Edward C. (2003).  Trust and Trust Building.  Publisher:  Beyond Intractability ( )

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