Focus Groups: Why People Behave Differently When They Are Being Watched

Imagine you have been tasked with increasing revenue for an “honor system” coffee donation in your office. A collection box has been placed next to the shiny new caffeine machine and everyone is told to donate at least 50 cents whenever they help themselves, and more if they feel inclined. While this may seem impossible (who’s going to pay more if they don’t have to?!) there’s a tried and true way of ensuring consistent payment without hiring a barista: stick subtle eyespots (images of eyes, or eye shaped designs) on the machine. In an elegant study by Bateson et. al. 2006, this potentially silly-sounding method led people to donate three times more to the pot than their coworkers who were exposed to a coffee machine without the eyespots. This study fits into a growing body of research trying to unravel exactly what effects implicit cues have on behavior. An implicit cue is simply something we are not aware of which can then have an effect on behavior (the output). For instance, the eyespots in the above example were an implicit cue which made the subjects feel as though they were being watched, thereby altering their behavior, leading them to act in a more altruistic manner. When marketing research firms conduct focus groups, dozens of implicit cues (for example. the neighborhood the site is in, the furniture in the room, how the other participants are dressed, etc.) may affect people’s behavior and responses. While many of these can be controlled, research suggests that the “feeling of being watched” can have far-reaching effects that bias the results of the focus group.

This phenomenon of changed behavior when “being watched” is not just observed when literal, physical eyes are present. The concept of divine accountability is a good example of this. Implicitly priming (which is scientist speak for ‘non-obviously hinting at’) the concept of God makes people act more generously. For example, in a classic experiment in which one subject must decide how to split some amount of money, subjects who were ‘primed’ with the concept of God beforehand chose to give more money to their partner than those subjects who were not primed. In another study, children as young as three years old are dissuaded from cheating when they are told that an invisible princess is in the room with them. These findings should not come as a surprise. We are all familiar with that eerie feeling of being watched and behavioral changes – choking under pressure, being honest – that come along with it.

One hypothesis as to why these effects occur is that the presence of others (for which eyes are a cue) is distracting – being observed can divert attention away from the task at hand. In terms of truthfully evaluating a product, as in a focus group, this means attention may be drawn away from thinking rationally about the discussion/product at hand. Instead, one’s mind becomes preoccupied with the other people and it’s almost impossible to stop ruminations, such as, “I wonder what they’re thinking about my opinions?” or “Do they think I’m being rude?” or “I wonder how they will react if I say what I’m about to say?” etc. Registering and processing the presence of others is crucial for trying to understand what others are thinking about and generally analyzing social constructs, and eye contact is an important method by which this is done. This social analysis can, however, be costly in terms of other cognitive functions, such as rational thought.

Another working hypothesis is that the presence of others encourages us to do the ‘good’ thing to gain social approval. A preliminary investigation into the neurobiology behind this hypothesis showed high activation in brain areas associated with processing emotional content when there was an expected social reward for a certain decision. That is, knowing how much observers valued certain decisions and then being asked to make a decision, led to activation of the ventral striatum, one of said brain regions. The fact that the promise of social reward activates this emotional center of the brain is significant, in that it supports the idea that we are not just cold, calculating, perfectly rational beings. Quite the opposite, we are very much (emotionally) affected by what others think about us. In fact, evolutionary psychiatrist Randolph Nesse recently gave a talk in which he noted the most common patient worry: what other people think about them. This concern makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: in a 2009 book chapter entitled Social Selection and the Evolution of Culture, Nesse writes, “selection has directly shaped intense wishes to please others by acting in whatever ways will make one a preferred partner.” We are reputation-obsessed because we need to be in the name of reproductive success. All of this has profound implications for how focus groups are run. Without even being consciously aware of it, participants could be more focused on what they should be saying, rather than reporting what they actually think. It should also be noted that the moderator has effects on subject behavior beyond the ‘being observed’ effects: if they have certain opinions or positions, it is very easy for them to either (non-purposefully) lead the discussion in that way or misinterpret the necessarily qualitative results after the fact. But this is a whole other issue that perhaps deserves its own post!

So, what should companies do? Focus groups are the industry standard for gaining insight into consumer behavior. Perhaps it’s time for a shift towards more unconventional ways of conducting qualitative research. While there is no simple fix, one alternative approach -- a broader use of surveys -- is worth keeping on eye on over the next few months. This growing industry is customizable and keeps the consumer in their own environment while gathering valuable information. We are less inclined to feel as though we are being watched and evaluated (and therefore act differently) if we are engaged with the content and working in our own environment.


  Focus Groups and Ink Blot Tests