Reflecting back 40 years or so, I recall observing the "father" of focus groups at work. Four decades later little has really changed.

Yes, focus groups have moved from the psychodrama stage setting to the conference table, but the basics have thankfully remained the same. At the time, I was completing my Masters in Psychology and was told about a psychologist who had blended motivation and human behavior as it related to product purchase decisions.

Dr. Ernest Dichter, an Austrian-American (1907-1991) psychologist who pioneered the application of Freudian psychoanalytic concepts and techniques to the study of consumer marketplace behavior practiced in Westchester County, NY where he founded The Institute of Motivational Research. Dr. Dichter is known as the first person to coin the term "focus group," according to an article in The New York Times from 1998. He is also recognized as being one of the first to understand and put a focus on image and persuasion in advertising campaigns.

Since I was intrigued by both psychology and business, I was off to learn much more about the "psychodrama" being practiced by Dr. Dichter at this Institute. I had also read "The Hidden Persuaders" by Vance Packard (1956), which contained numerous references to Dr. Dichter, and questioned Dichter’s methods for conducting research which were said to take advantage of consumers’ emotions. I was interested in seeing exactly what was going on first hand.

I recall entering a stone castle-like structure, surrounded by deep woods within view of the Hudson River. Once inside, I was ushered to a large room with a circular elevated stage in the center and walkway surrounding the stage. There on the stage were several people (consumers) who were being asked by Dr. Dichter to act out being a product. "You are a dessert pudding," he suggested. "How old are you?", "Are you male or female?", "What is your personality?" Each consumer was instructed to be a different type of pudding and asked to define themselves.

"How are you similar or different from each other?" he continued. "Why do you go with the meal you are being served at?" And so it went on for two hours or so with consumers responding to Dr. Dichter’s questions. Sound familiar to you? This was 40 years ago!

Dr. Dichter continued to employ analogies, asking consumers (puddings) to relate to objects such as cars, flowers, and animals. Such methods were also used in "synectics," a more recent think tank process. Remember sentence completion from your early elementary school days? They were applied in Dichter’s ‘psychodrama’ workshops to compile vocabulary trends. Projective techniques abounded. And "homework" assignments were given. You were told to visit a supermarket along with an Institute staff member who asked observational and decision-based questions (similar to ethnographies and shop-alongs today.) Recall, this was 40+ years ago. Dichter was of the opinion that you could not simply poll consumers to decipher their preferences of a product because you would get inaccurate information; he felt there were true emotions behind purchases which could make or break a product. Dichter believed that consumers needed to speak at length about their purchasing activity and he could employ his psychoanalytical techniques to understand what they were "really" saying. He said, "I observe hidden clues; I listen with the third ear; I interpret. I see where others are too blind because they are too close to the trees. I find the solution and product sales results. I have acted as a discoverer, as a general on the battlefield of free enterprise." Among his most famous slogans; "Put a tiger in your tank" for Exxon. After creating the slogan, his client asked "How would a tiger fit in your tank?" – to which Dichter laughed and explained he was talking about power.

After visiting Dr. Dichter’s Institute, I decided to get a "real job" in a new field called Market Research. Why not adopt some of Dichter’s ideas to take consumers off the stage and gather information around a table? Dr. Dichter had given life to the "focus group" and now practitioners just needed to follow his methods; they needed to be more targeted and decision making oriented and less speculative so that most anyone could comfortably be a part of a "focus group" or "in-depth interview." The believer in me had Dr. Dichter’s thoughts to follow. He contended that, "Every buying act is a highly dramatic event full of spontaneity and emotion. A representation of this act under controlled conditions will prove a new tool for observing relationships to products in all their subtle details." (NY Times, 2/98), and I concurred. As appropriate, I and others successfully incorporated his techniques into practice and have conducted over 2,000 focus groups, brain storming sessions, and IDI’s over the years.

After about 40 years in the industry, I am still in agreement with Dr. Dichter that adding a tested psychological dimension (and knowing how to interpret it) brings truth to solutions. Typical groups and interviews do not usually reveal the "why" people say what they say because they are too structured. Unless consumers have the chance to speak, we researchers oftentimes miss important emotions, clues and direction.

What has Changed?
In principle; very little has changed. The observation rooms have bigger mirrors and technology has become an integral part of many research discussions. Ethnographies are in vogue (they always were). Projective techniques are utilized.

What has changed is that many of those asking the questions as facilitators do not "hear" what consumers are really saying and their hidden language. They have difficulty putting the psychodrama/focus group puzzle together and they often draw inaccurate hypotheses.

An article in The Economist from 2011 summarizes research methods and Ernest Dichter well: "The rise of the computer in the 1960’s introduced new quantitative methods of researching consumer attitudes, which promised greater scientific purity. Instead of presuming that secret motivations for buying, for example, detergent lurked in the traumatized subconscious, it seemed safer and wiser to study behavior and create mathematical models based on income and geography."

"Meanwhile the development of the cognitive sciences from the late 1950s through to the 1970s offered new empirical methods for considering such things as memory and problem-solving, psychologists, anthropologists and behavior scientist studies of mental development. By the 1980s scientists exploring the brain were examining how people handle information and make decisions." The US armed forces were actively using eye tracking and pupil dilation in the 1980s to relate to military mapping and recall. The devices were then applied to ad message internalization.

But more recent developments in neuroscience have inspired fresh questions about instincts and desires, unconscious prophesies and gut decisions. New information about human cognition has led the hard sciences back to the same sort of concerns that preoccupied psychoanalysts in Vienna a century ago.

"We’ve come back full circle," confirms Baba Shiv, Director of the Strategic Marketing Management Program at Stanford. "Emotion is back in, the unconscious is back in." It is now fashionable to study brain waves to see what lights up upon hearing the words "Coca Cola," or to measure eye movements in response to brand logos. But these studies don’t explain why something is happening or what its effect might be in the real world. Rather, they create a framework for new assumptions, new leaps of faith, new ways to tell stories about irrational choices people make. Human behavior remains mysterious, and there is still no certain way to persuade people to buy a particular brand of soap. Ernest Dichter knew that, too, but his stories about what motivates us are still some of the best around.

Ira Weinstein is the President of Perspectives Resources, Inc., a full-service marketing research company founded in 1973, providing comprehensive and customized services. ( www.pri-air.com)

Footnotes:

  1. The View from Peekskill, Tending the Flames of a Motivator. NYS, 2/8/98
  2. Libido can rule when the ID does the shopping. UniNews, 1/12/03
  3. Ernest Dichter, Father of Motivational Research, a 2005 Symposium at University of Vienna.
  4. Retail Therapy: How Ernest Dichter, an acolyte of Sigmund Freud, revolutionized marketing. The Economist, 12/17/11