The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 7 Issue 2   February 2011


The NFL Playoffs may seem an unlikely place for us to uncover market research insights. But that’s exactly what happened during the New England Patriots vs. New York Jets game last month.

Today’s “Research With a Twist” explains how “the focus group phenomenon” can occur both on and off the playing field.

Game on!

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

When Bad Things Happen to Good Teams
As usual, in the weeks prior to Super Bowl XLV (that’s Super Bowl 45, for you non-Romans), most Americans were eagerly anticipating the coming big game. I say “most,” because not all Americans have an interest in football and … not all Americans are from New England.

Here in Boston, the heart of New England Patriots Nation, we’re still licking our wounds following the devastating defeat last month at the hands of the hated NY Jets. After watching our boys in blue crush the Jets, 45-3, just a month earlier, the only question in our minds leading up to this past game was whether we’d embarrass them again or simply defeat them handily.

Needless to say, the loss did more than just knock us out of the playoffs … it surprised the bejezus out of us too. And while today, there is no shortage of people — pundits and laypeople alike — who are eager to explain, in detail, why the Jets were always capable of taking down the seemingly invincible Pats, three weeks ago these folks were nowhere to be found.

Taking off my Patriots jersey for a moment and putting on my market researcher’s hat, I can’t help but marvel at how unexpected the loss was. And not just to New Englanders either — to the national media, the Las Vegas odds makers and football fans everywhere. The facts were there, but nobody gave serious consideration to a New England defeat.

As someone who earns a living by gathering, analyzing and reporting on the opinions of others, this nearly universal blind spot relative to the New England Patriots of a month ago is fascinating. How could so many of us have gotten it so wrong?

One word: Groupthink.

Put another way, the Patriots phenomenon was a focus group “groupthink” experience on a massive scale. And while the loss broke my New England heart, it served as a useful reminder of how easily the facts can be overlooked when survey respondents come together to weigh in on a particular topic.

Consider what happened last month and how this same kind of thing plays out regularly in focus groups:
  • Dissenting opinions tend to be suppressed. The well-known “Asch Conformity Experiments” of the 1950s demonstrated how study participants, when faced with a universal opinion from the rest of the group, often ignored their own eyesight and followed the crowd. Similarly, In the days leading up to the Patriots-Jets game, even those who may have had their doubts about the game’s outcome were silenced by the majority view.

    In a focus group, where participants converse openly and sit face to face, the crowd effect is even more pronounced. There’s a strong pull to go with the flow and extinguish opposing points of view.
  • Implied expertise and/or perceived authority can sway opinions. In the sports world, it’s natural to assume that the “experts” in the media have more experience, more knowledge and more access to inside information. After all, the thinking goes, if they’re on TV or writing for the daily newspaper, they must know something we don’t.

    In a group research setting, a similar phenomenon is often at play. A focus group participant may inadvertently announce a qualification (e.g., “I’m a doctor,” “I used to work in that industry”), causing others to censor their own views and defer to his or her authority. We ran one focus group session, in fact, where a participant’s experience was so extensive and his opinion so forceful, that we had no choice but to remove him from the room, mid-session.
  • Bad decisions often result. The Patriots team members, of course, live in the same information bubble as the rest of us. It’s not hard to imagine some of the overconfident groupthink seeping into their own actions.

    If they believed they could actually lose, maybe coach Belichick wouldn’t have benched star player Wes Welker at the beginning of the game; maybe they would have practiced the “trick plays” (which were botched on the field on game day) a few more times; maybe they would have all worked just a little bit harder in practice the week before.

    The point is, bad information has real consequences. If a focus group gets derailed by groupthink, it can cause companies to launch products badly, refine systems incorrectly, or miss opportunities entirely. All because the useful, independent voices of the group’s participants are overshadowed by the collective opinion.
Here’s the Twist: None of us likes to believe that our opinions and points of view are so easily shaped by group dynamics and the collective “wisdom” of the crowd. But in experiment after experiment — not to mention right here in the New England sports scene — it’s been clearly demonstrated that as humans, we all have a strong “following” instinct.

The solution? Minimize groupthink at the start by conducting one-on-one interviews. You’ll never completely remove the influence of others, but by isolating individuals during the data-gathering phase, you’ll greatly reduce the odds of being sacked by bad information!

— Julie

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Despite the weaknesses described above, focus groups will likely remain a staple of market research for many years to come. To ensure that you get the best results possible, make sure to…

…consider the group as a whole. Establishing an appropriate focus group session requires more than just saying “yes” or “no” to participants on an individual basis — group balance matters as well. Having one participant, for example, who knows much more (or less) about the topic at hand than the rest of the group can stifle honest expression.

…be prepared to remove individuals. When there’s someone in the room who’s warping the dynamic in some way, don’t hesitate to ask him or her to leave. While this can be momentarily awkward, it’s sometimes the only way to keep the group on track and get the information you’re looking for.

…be conscious of the effects of attire and appearances. Participants who arrive for the group before or after work dressed in police uniforms, military fatigues or hospital scrubs (just to name a few examples) can inadvertently send a message to other focus group members that they are in a position of authority. Here as well, it’s important to consider whether or not these people should be allowed to participate.

…seek out dissenting opinions. Understanding the influence that the majority can have over the willingness of individuals to speak frankly, it’s good practice to look for disagreement within the group. Those who see things differently often offer the most value, but you may only hear from them if you’re willing to patiently probe for additional layers of insight.


When Bad Things Happen to Good Teams

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

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The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result, our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.

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