Sunday, October 12, 2003

Out Of Focus

I've always been suspicious of opinion polls and the like. As a media and communication teacher, I never tire of pointing out to students and peers alike that the way a question is phrased has more to do with what answer you get when you ask it than what people really think of or on a given issue. But I never realized that the continued trusted proliferation of the format -- and the untrustworthy cultural flotsam that results -- was our own damn fault, because I never put the problem into focus as well as Lies, Damn Lies, and Focus Groups: Why don't consumers tell the truth about what they want?, a veryclear, interesting and well-documented article in yesterday's Slate.

The premise -- that telemarketers desperate to make moot their impending death knell, aka the Do Not Call law, have thrown their industry to the wolves by pointing out that people cannot be trusted to know what products they would actually prefer to their current consumer habit -- reveals the inevitable flaws which make focus groups a useless tool for actually predicting mass product appeal (notably, the sole function of the focus group itself). In offering a point-by-point demonstration of why even though few in the industry question their value, a huge gap yawns between customer intentions expressed in focus groups and behavior in the marketplace, however, commentator Daniel Gross slickly broadens the question, calling into question a much larger societal premise -- that asking people to tell you what they think is in any way an accurate indicator of what people actually think.

Consider for a moment how many questionnaires you've filled out, and how many answers you've offered up for your own behavior, in the past six months -- from quizilla personality tests to job interviews -- and for what purpose. Dwell on why -- for in most cases, those answers determine both our fate in the hands of others and the way we think and act. Now realize that it's a standard tenet in, say, sociology (one of my many undergrad majors, a necessity for a degree in cybercultural studies) that people generally have no idea why they do things, and that those ideas they do use to explain their own quirks and social mores tend to be, when examined empirically, entirely and totally wrong.

And, interestingly, here we have a fact that is its own proof. We've known all along that empirical data and observation are trustworthy, and self-examination too biased. Yet millions of dollars are spent feeding and compensating focus group participants in Hollywood alone each year. Mere observation of the effect of focus groups would have told us all long ago to try something else. Instead, we keep filling out the forms, and living with the lives that follow -- all because someone along the line said it would work, and, god help us, we believed him.

Happily, Gross gives us a few sources to follow which have already chosen the empirical path over the anecdotal. If I ever decide to leave academia, I'm sending a letter of introduction to Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing partner of the Context-Based Research Group, an organization which conducts market research through fieldwork observing people using products in their natural habitats.

Guess Heinlein was right: mass psychology is a real, hard science after all. Now if we could only start acting like it, we'd have a shot at empirical application of it. Imagine being able to pre-determine exactly how much bias you wanted your ad copy to carry, and which buttons exactly to push. Or, if that's too scary, imagine using the same benchmarks to determine what consitutes propaganda, thus making an analytical challenge of what is now a legal, human enterprise, shifting standard and all.

As an addendum, I've just realized that this issue is exactly why I don't trust my own school's impending move towards smallness, including perhaps a move to a single campus. Major changes are afoot here; my job may be gone this time next year, or the next. But if any good comes of it it's sure to be accidental: the whole decision's based on summer focus groups asking "what do we want this community to be, and what's the best size to make that community happen?" Garbage in, guys.

posted by boyhowdy | 2:23 AM |

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