We’ve all been in that focus group—the respondents like (or more likely, dislike) an idea. Here's how it goes:

Moderator:  So why do you like this idea?
Consumer:  I don’t know, I just like it?
Moderator:  Can you be more specific?
Consumer:  Um, well, let me think about it…

This is the moment of Confabulation!

Confabulation: The tendency to choose emotionally and not as consciously as we believe, then rationalize seemingly plausible justification for these choices. 

The consumer likes or dislikes the idea—probably for an emotional reason. They may not know why. When we push for the why, the consumer confabulates a rational answer. This may or may not be the real reason why. 

This Is NOT because consumers are trying to deceive us—I truly believe that they are trying to be helpful and answer the moderator’s question. The problem is that they may not have access to the part of their brain that liked or disliked the idea. 

So what can we do? 

Unfortunately, not much. The very nature of focus groups is Confabulation—consumers explaining why they feel a certain way. Furthermore, this Confabulation can be influenced even more by Conformity Bias—where the need for agreement in a group can influence the answers. That said, here are some ways we’ve gotten around these biases:

  • Online Synchronous Groups. We have been doing groups where everyone sees the concept at the same time, and types in their responses, including the why, before they read or hear anyone else’s thoughts. That way we get the initial response and the reasons why right up front. 
  • Don’t push consumers for the why. If someone can’t articulate it, turn to a consumer who is able to share more quickly and articulately. Digging for the why with a consumer who doesn’t have it will only result in Confabulation. 
  • Don’t give too much weight to the confabulated reason. Know that it may not be as valid as other explanations that come more readily. 

Focus groups still have their merit—but they are fraught with Cognitive Biases. We may not be able to get rid of these biases, but being aware of them—and how they impact our thinking and reactions—will make you a smarter consumer advocate and a better innovator. 

For more on overcoming Confabulation and other Cognitive Biases, check out our book, Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation™Approach Drives Your Company Forward.

Emeritus Facilitator Christine Haskins

Christine Haskins is an Emeritus Facilitator and Former Vice President of Customer Experience at Ideas To Go. She worked with customer-centered innovation for Fortune 500 companies across all market categories and industries.