Amplified experience: What is it and does it occur in focus groups?

A common concern with focus groups is group think. In most cases what appears to be groupthink is actually poor moderation – the moderator fails to control dominating personalities and elicit comments from the quiet ones. Beyond being strong moderators to further combat the possibility of group think Isurus includes individual exercises in most focus groups. This ensures we collect feedback from everyone and provides the more timid participants with a stick in the ground they can stand by when aggressive participants try to sell their point of view.

That said, recent research coming out of Yale University and published in the journal Psychological Science provides some interesting food for thought. Erica J. Boothby, Margaret S. Clark, John A. Bargh found evidence that shared experiences amplify how we feel about them. We find positive experiences more positive when we see someone sharing the same experience – we find our individual desert more delicious if others are having and enjoying a desert as well.  The same goes for negative experiences, sitting in the jury waiting room feels worse than it is partly because there are others with you sharing the experience. The effect isn’t conscious. People don’t change their opinion based on what they think the group feels, they actually have more intense feelings about their experience. The effect isn’t great, but it is big enough to be measurable.

If supported by further research the implications for creating better work and social environments are obvious. As researchers we should ask ourselves, “Is this relevant to focus groups?”.  Maybe.  In instances when there is strong consensus—either positive or negative—on the appeal of a product or messaging concept the amplified experience phenomenon may kick-in. Individuals may find products slightly more appealing than they would when conducting an evaluation in isolation. They may also find an ad concept more offensive than they would if they actually saw it at home.

Regardless of what further research says about the amplified experience, thoughtful and effective research designs address this issue as well as the other challenges associated with focus groups. These include:

  • Guides that explore current situations, pains, motivations, and mind sets
  • Moderators that can control the dominant personalities and draw out the meek
  • A holistic analysis that goes beyond participant reactions to the concept
  • Applying experience and sound judgment to the data

Following these principles ensures that focus group research does not fall into any traps that exist – the known ones and the ones surfacing in the areas of behavioral economics and psychology.