Groupthink and focus groups

Have you ever sat in a group discussion and stayed quiet because you were worried that you were wrong, or that everyone else had a different opinion from yours? Most of us have been a victim of ‘groupthink’ in one way or another. It affects political discussions, work meetings, focus groups and pretty much any situation in which groups try to solve a problem, or come to a consensus decision. Groupthink was first talked about by Irving Janis in the 1970s and has been used to explain bad decision-making in many different contexts. But before I talk about how it has an effect on work or focus groups, let’s focus on one of the prime examples of groupthink:

The Attack on Pearl Harbour

Before Pearl Harbour was attacked on 7th December 1941, internal Japanese messages had been intercepted and it was discovered that they were preparing for an attack in the Pacific. As a result of this, Washington sent a warning to the officers stationed at Pearl Harbour. But why was this warning not taken seriously enough to prepare for the attack? Discussions led the Navy and Army to conclude that the attack was unlikely, and they rationalised their opinion in many different ways. They assumed that the attack would only happen as a response to the US attacking Japan, and that Japan would surely not be crazy enough to start a war that they couldn’t win. Also, the officers thought that even if the attack should happen, they would be able to detect and destroy the fleets before they could reach the base. What does groupthink have to do with these conclusions, and how does it affect our everyday decision-making?

When Janis developed his theory, he named three groups of symptoms that groups suffer from when making a decision: overestimating the group, closed-mindedness and pressure towards uniformity.

Overestimating the Group

According to Janis, group members overestimate their group in two ways: They think they are invulnerable, and they don’t question the morality of their group and the decision it makes. Pearl Harbour suffered from both of these: Overestimating the power of their country (which led them to take the risk of not preparing), and believing to be in the right, supporting the right cause, and therefore ignoring the consequences of their actions (or non-actions in this case). Focus groups are more strongly influenced by the first factor: They are a completely invulnerable group, because they will never be held accountable for their decisions. This encourages the group members to voice support for riskier options than necessary, which can end up costing a company millions.

Closed-Mindedness

But you don’t need to overestimate the group in order to make bad decisions: Group members also tend to rationalise their group decisions and stereotype those who aren’t part of the group. In the Pearl Harbour example, both of these factors played a role. The officers used rationalisations to ignore the warning signs and stereotyped the Japanese army as being too weak and scared to attack the US base. In focus groups, these factors are seen in a more subtle way. The aim of focus groups (and most work discussions) is to come to a consensus decision, which means that they are prone to ignore minority opinions. Additionally, focus groups assume that their opinion is representative of everyone ‘in their right mind’, and ignores people who aren’t represented in the group. Most of the closed-mindedness of focus groups, however, stems from the third group of symptoms:

Pressure toward Uniformity

The pressure toward uniformity arguably has a lot to do with the fact that groups try to reach a consensus decision, and Janis describes the symptoms related to this in four different ways: Self-censorship, illusions of unanimity, direct pressure to conform and mind guards. Self-censorship is exactly what I talked about in the beginning of this post; if you feel that everyone else’s opinion is different from yours, you are reluctant to speak up. This is especially true if you feel that others are more powerful than you (probably the case in the Pearl Harbour discussion) or if you don’t hold particularly strong opinions (as seen in focus groups – would you start a fight over a new bottle design?). This can result in the illusion of unanimity, because the group assumes that silence is a form of agreement. The direct pressure to conform and ‘mind guards’, people who deliberately shield you from dissenting information, might not play as obvious a role in the work environment and focus groups (one would hope), but might influence political decision-making.

Does this mean that all group discussions are automatically doomed and can never come to a good decision? No, but it helps to be aware of group dynamics and how they can influence your discussion. Next time you are in a meeting, speak up (especially if you don’t agree with the rest of the group!) and try to not get carried away with the flow of the discussion. Be realistic about your options, advantages and risks, and you might be able to reduce the influence that groupthink has on your decision-making.

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


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Effective Branding

Gaining strong brand equity is an important goal for every brand. If you want to make your brand as successful as it can be, it is important to understand your brand’s personality, its position in the marketplace and its potential for moving into new areas. These questions can be tricky to answer, even using market research. It requires an approach that is completely individual to your brand and a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve. There are however three key areas that market research should focus on to fully understand your current positioning, potentials and limitations:

Brand Identity

This refers to the personality of your brand, the nature of its products and what values you want people to associate with your brand. There is probably some visual imagery associated with your brand, and you should get your brand to strongly own this imagery. This is tremendously important, as your imagery can lead customers to feel positively about your brand, induce feelings of familiarity and communicate concepts that are desirable to you, such as quality and affordability. All of this can lead to strong brand equity. It is also important that your brand manages to differentiate itself from its competitors. Asking people how they feel about your brand can provide a good starting point, but you should not stop there: It is (arguably even more) important to find out how people truly and subconsciously feel about your brand, which imagery and messages are essential to your brand and which ones are not making people feel more positively about it.

Brand Space

Your brand does not exist in isolation, and you know this. To improve your brand, it is absolutely essential to understand where exactly it lies within its category and marketplace, and what sets it apart from competitors. People need to easily identify your brand as part of the category, but also see it as different enough to understand why they should buy your products, and not the competitors’. Understanding your positioning is essential when you are thinking of growing and expanding your brand, perhaps taking over new categories, or even if you just want to make people feel more positively about your brand and associate it with the right values. How people feel about your brand is largely driven by their subconscious, and measuring these subconscious feelings can help you carve out a unique space in the market and really stand out from the crowd.

Brand Behaviour

Apart from understanding your brand’s personality and its space in the market, you might also want to find out how flexible your brand is. You don’t want your brand to stagnate, but at the same time know it should stay true to its personality. How flexible your brand is will largely depend on its products and categories, but understanding its possibilities and limitations is essential to make your brand as successful as it can be. For addressing potential brand behaviour, an individually tailored approach is needed. It is important to assess how consumers will react to changes to your brand; reaching into new categories, creating new products, changing brand personality, or changing the focus of brand communications. It is also important to find out what consumers really want; are the planned changes to the brand, products or communications desirable to the consumer? At this stage, it is also worth taking your competitors into account. Can your brand react to your competitor’s changes quickly and efficiently? The way this is tested is similar to testing your brand identity and brand space, but you might be interested in monitoring changes over time as well. The three key areas for effective branding can of course be investigated using the traditional asking methods of market research, but this won’t paint the whole picture. A large proportion of the decisions we make is influenced by our subconscious, and it important to test how people truly feel about your brand using the most effective market research available.

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


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