A focus group discussion is nothing if not a venue for researchers to probe more deeply on any given issue. Focus groups by definition target a particular topic and envelop group participants with variations of the “why” question – “What makes you say that?” “How are the services of one healthcare provider ‘better’ than those of another?“ – as well as any number of projective techniques that shine light on unconscious, less-than-rational motives and perceptions. Moderators spend considerable time devising ways to get at the underlying reasons for people’s behavior and attitudes; and, indeed, these in-depth techniques make qualitative research an invaluable companion to quantitative methods.
Or do they? Do all of our “what,” “how,” “who,” “why” questions and indirect techniques actually elicit attitudes and opinions that are truly valuable in that they offer an honest measure of our participants’ realities? This is an important question because, just as moderators search for the best approach in gaining new insights, they also want to feel confident in their findings.
So, are our focus group designs – with all the built-in probes and tactics – producing good research? The issue here is the trustworthiness of the results and whether what we learn from one focus group study is not too far afield from what we would learn if we were to rewind the calendar and conduct the study again with the same set of participants in the same group environments. Researchers are obligated to examine this issue and the certainty by which they can say that the attitudes expressed (or otherwise revealed) in their focus group research are dependable and the implications drawn from the research are real.
Wouldn’t it be a shock if our direct and indirect moderating techniques were in fact degrading the honesty of our focus group research outcomes? Some experimentation has shown that asking people to explain or give reasons for their attitudes and behavior essentially alters their response. Timothy Wilson and Sara Hodge, for example, in “Attitudes as Temporary Constructions” discuss various studies that all point to the same basic conclusion: introspection or asking research participants to analyze their reasons changes their attitudes, and can even lead to less-than-optimal decision-making behavior (i.e., people allow their reasoning to guide them to decisions they would not make otherwise and that ultimately turn out to be unsatisfactory choices).
Wilson and his colleagues, in their 1989 paper, isolated the effect of introspection and attitude change to people who were relatively unfamiliar with or less knowledgeable about the topic in question. So, for instance, people who were not too familiar with a political candidate were more apt to change their attitudes toward the candidate compared to people with more knowledge of the individual. It has been suggested that, in analyzing their reasons, less knowledgeable people are forced to consider any number of factors outside their original sphere of belief, making the newly-formed attitude fleeting and subject to further change.
These are just a couple of examples of the work that has been done exploring attitude strength and its association with “thinking too much.” It is important to anyone who designs focus group research because it tells us that: 1) asking group participants to justify their attitudes and behavior (via the “what,” “how,” “who,” “why” questions or projectives), in and of itself, can alter their thoughts; and, 2) the reasoning process – particularly among less knowledgeable participants (possibly non-customers, non-users of a product or service) – invites a host of atypical considerations for any one individual that can fluctuate from moment to moment. All of which speaks to the trustworthiness of our research findings.
If the purpose of research is to understand how people think then how do we do that without trespassing into the zone of “thinking too much” and affecting the very attitudes we are after? Focus group research designs can address this in various ways. For instance: 1) the moderator can build in more active listening skills that focus on picking up inter- and intra-participant attitudinal inconsistencies; 2) the moderator can carefully select projective techniques and avoid those that force participants to think deeply about something they know little about; and, 3) focus group discussions can be targeted towards people who have knowledge of the topic (e.g., customers, users of a product or service) and therefore more likely to harbor a stable opinion. These are just a few of the many design considerations that researchers can incorporate into their focus group studies to maximize honest reasoning from participants to produce insightful and useful outcomes.