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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Malcolm Tucker’s Guide on How to Use a Focus Group

Malcolm Tucker of The Thick of It/In the LoopI was recently given The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC files – a book that is ostensibly the lost secret governmental files of one Malcolm Tucker, the political spin doctor featured in The Thick of It on TV and In The Loop in the cinema.

Among the many funny segments in the book is one particularly pertinent to this blog: a guide on how to use a focus group. He is referring primarily to political focus groups, but his points are applicable across the research spectrum.

Before dispensing his advice, Tucker makes it very clear (I’ve expunged most of the fruity language) that focus groups are not helpful. Among the reasons are

  • They are made up of members of the public who are intrinsically unreliable/ lop-sided/ racist/ mental
  • They are ‘run’ by marketing ‘people’
  • Putting a bunch of people with nothing better to do in an airless basement can’t end well – “At best, you’ll get a Downfall parody you can put on the net”

I think that is fair enough. Furthermore, his advice on getting the best from focus groups is better than some things I’ve heard from professional researchers:

  • Do not listen to one person in particular – one person is not representative of anything. Even if they agree with you.
  • If there is no consensus then ignore everything everyone says
  • If there is consensus, listen to it and then ask yourself if it is mad
  • If it isn’t mad, then give it serious consideration. After that, reject it out of hand as “the purpose of a focus group is to give the illusion that we are listening. It is not to form policy”. If it were, these people would be the Cabinet

Tucker also usefully identifies eleven types of people to beware of

  • Motorway Man – he spends a lot of time on the motorway so is, by definition, out of touch
  • Holby City Woman – “She watches Holby City. She is a human vacuum”
  • The Disillusioned Voter
  • The Young Person Who Went Straight From School To Working in a Key-Cutters – gets all his/her information from things mates have said in the pub
  • The Student – only there in the hope of getting free biscuits and red bull
  • The Woman Who Will Agree With Everything That Is Said Because That Is What She Thinks You Want
  • The Fucking Guardian Reader – “If you want to know what a Guardian reader thinks you can read the Guardian. Plus, that way, you get a crossword”
  • The Fucking Telegraph Reader – “A ruddy-faced village idiot who looks like he’s directly descended from Lord Melchett in Blackadder II
  • The Local Business Man – only interested in issues concerning him
  • Dot Cotton’s Younger, Less Glamorous Sister – only there for a bit of company
  • The Fucking Weirdo Who Says Stuff Either Too Quiet Or Too Loud Which Doesn’t Make Sense And Trails Off Into Nothing Or Ends Mid-Thought Thereby Making Everyone Feel Uncomfortable – ignore them. Unless they’re in charge of the focus group

The final points to bear in mind are:

  • The Under 30s are too young to know anything
  • People between the age of 30 and 40 are only interested in stuff that directly pertains to them/their children
  • “The Over 40s are losing their faculties and no longer able to absorb or process information properly”

“And remember: People talk shit. They talk even more shit when they are asked to manufacture opinions on subjects they are totally ignorant of and/or couldn’t give a gnat’s anus about”.

Sound advice. For more of his (along with Nicola, Olly, Glenn, Terri and Jamie’s) pearls of wisdom, go get the book



Escaping the echo chamber

Echoes of war image

Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker article The Things People Say – a review of Cass R. Sunstein’s “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done“- brought up some fascinating examples of group polarisation.

The brief summary is that in the internet age, we are increasingly associating ourselves with likeminded people and opinions. This not only reinforces our original views, but strengthens them – whether through hearing an argument repeated back, feeling vindicated by hearing others in agreement, listening to alternative reasons for a viewpoint or simply competing with others to lead the line.

My favourite quote from the article is:

At the same time that [the internet] makes more news available, it also makes more news avoidable

The most nebulous effects of group polarisation are extremism and misinformation. One such example being the – ridiculous if it weren’t real – “birther movement” in the United States, regarding Barack Obama’s birth certificate (and nationality, and eligibility to hold office).

However, the effect I’m more interested in is an unwillingness to engage with alternative viewpoints. Through our emails, RSS feeds, Twitter streams and selections of articles to click through, we are self-selecting the news and views we read. We lack balance and nuance in our understanding of issues. This can in turn lead to close mindedness.

In 2006, Sunstein performed his own study of fifty political sites. He found that more than four-fifths linked to like-minded sites but only a third linked to sites with an opposing viewpoint. Moreover, many of the links to the opposing side’s sites were offered only to illustrate how “dangerous, dumb, or contemptible the views of the adversary really are.”

Reading the article has led me to consider the effect of group polarisation on me both personally and professionally.

On a personal level:

I feel that my job as a market researcher gives me an understanding of the mood of the general public on certain issues and this grounding (plus my natural cynicism) prevents me getting too carried away with certain thoughts or concepts. I note, for instance, that television is far from dead and that businesses without a presence in Second Life continue to thrive.

However, I do tend to source my news/opinion pieces from the same places. Therefore, I’m going to try a little experiment.

For around half an hour a day, I’m going to spend some time browsing the online edition of a newspaper. A different newspaper, each day of the week. The Sun, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mirror and The Independent. I’ll keep this up for a couple of months.

It will hard to gauge the effects this experiment has on me, since there is no “control” to measure how my views have been influenced or changed. Nevertheless, I do expect to experience different levels of agreement, anger, sympathy and incredulity depending on the source and the tone. Of course, the challenge will not be to skip the stories that appear to hold little interest to me. I’ll update on progress in a couple of months

On a professional level:

Tthe idea of group polarisation calls into question the suitability of focus groups as an accurate gauge of opinion. They are fine to pull out exaggerated opinions or caricatures to make a point, but for issues where nuance and balance are required?

This is where the strengths of the internet come back to the fore. Group discussions can be held online. But there is no reason for group participants to be mutually exclusive. Rather than a number of separate groups each recruited to a specific demographic or attitude but covering the same topics, different combinations can be recruited from a “parent group” for specific breakout discussions. For instance, if a discussion guide had five sections, different combinations of groups could be created for each sector.

This is only a thought at the moment, and there are multiple practical obstacles that would need to be overcome. But I like the idea of moving away from reciprocal relationships within research to asymmetrical connections. Moving from a Facebook relationship to a Twitter relationship, if you will.

Compartmentalising facets of our personality and emphasising elements for different audiences is much more akin to real-world interactions, and can also marginalise the threat of group polarisation.

I shall be spending more time mulling this over, but any thoughts on the subject are welcome.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paopix/3882291940/

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