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The wisdom-of-focus-groups: why thinking together doesn’t have to mean groupthink

The dangers of the herd mentality – the tendency for individuals to be influenced by their peers – are well documented. Phenomena such as stock market bubbles, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, and Black Friday madness are all understood to result from this quirk of human nature. Social influence in groups can lead individuals to converge on a consensus answer or behaviour that is irrational, as well as masking the unique insights and viewpoints of its members.

For a company commissioning focus group research to help test a new product, or a professional association wanting insight on member engagement, herding is a worrying phenomenon with the potential to lead to misleading or bland results. A good facilitator is aware of cognitive biases, such as herding, that can play out in groups and employs measures to mitigate them – however, new research published in Nature Human Behaviour suggests that the problem may not be as significant as social psychologists have suggested.

A research team from universities in Germany, Argentina and the United Kingdom set out to investigate the so-called wisdom-of-crowds and whether individuals are smarter when kept independent and apart, or when given the opportunity to deliberate as part of a small group. A group of over 5,000 participants at a TED conference answered eight quantity estimation questions alone, both before and again following discussion in a group of five people.

Their findings suggest that the wisdom of small groups of people outstrips that of both individuals and a large crowd:

- Groups of five were 49.2 percent more accurate in their answers than the crowd as a whole.
- The collective estimates of just 4 groups were more accurate than the sum of the individual estimates of the entire crowd.
- Although opinions tended to converge within groups, diversity of opinion was retained between the groups.
- When asked what deliberation procedures they used in the discussions, “Sharing arguments and reasoning together” was the most commonly used approach.

The researchers suggest that these findings show that social interaction, rather than causing herding, can bring “remarkable benefits” in terms of accuracy and efficiency. Discussing opinions, communicating uncertainty, sharing arguments and reasons – all of these deliberative actions can lead the group to a better understanding, rather than necessarily resulting in groupthink.

Navajas and colleagues’ findings are consistent with research into collaborative learning which shows that peer-to-peer interaction, both online and face-to-face, can help maximise understanding of conceptual problems. For instance, think-pair-share strategies that encourage students to think individually and then share with others in order to understand and learn new concepts.

While this new research can’t give us a definitive answer to the question of whether groups enrich or obscure individual opinions and viewpoints, it does throw light on how a well-managed focus group can be a vehicle for valuable insight when used in conjunction with other qualitative and quantitative research methodologies.

Get in touch with the Research by Design team today to discuss your research needs and how we can uncover valuable insights through a range of approaches to help support your business.

Source: Navajas, J., Niella, T., Garbulsky, G., Bahrami, B., & Sigman, M. (2018). Aggregated knowledge from a small number of debates outperforms the wisdom of large crowds. Nature Human Behaviour, 1.


This entry was posted in Market research, tagged Focus Group and posted on February 12, 2018

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