How Focus Groups and misleading KPIs make us look shallow

In a famous experiment, American psychologists Timothy D. Wilson and Jonathan W. Schooler invited grad students into a room to look at different posters. Participants were told that the purpose of the experiment was to examine the different kinds of visual effects that people like in pictures and drawings.

The posters consisted in pictures from two expressionists painters, Nympheas by Monet and Les Iris Saint Remy by Van Gogh, and two pictures with humorous cats, captioned "Gimme a Break" and “One Step at a Time”. They were individually invited to examine the posters in a room and to answer a questionnaire that they were to hand in at the end of the experiment.

Participants were randomly chosen to receive one of two different versions of the questionnaire. In the control group, this questionnaire inquired about their Major and why they decided to join the University; it was completely unrelated to the task at hand. In the second group, participants were invited to organize their thoughts by writing what they liked and disliked about each of the different posters.

At the end of the session, the experimenter surprised the students by telling them that they were invited to keep one of the posters and take it home. About a month later, they called the students to ask them how satisfied they were with the posters, and at what price they were willing to resell them.

The results confirmed what the experimenters suspected: that “introspecting about reasons had an impact on post-choice satisfaction”. In plain words, if a person is made to reason why they like something before choosing it, he or she will choose that which is easier to verbalize and not necessarily what they prefer.

In the experiment, students that were made to explain their opinion of the posters were seven times more likely to choose the picture of the kittens than the control group, of which 95% had preferred the impressionist paintings. What was even more striking is that a month later, those who had chosen the humorous posters after expressing their reasons were much more likely to have gotten rid of the posters and valued them at a much lower price than the rest of the participants.

And what does this mean for companies? Well, for starters it tells us that the current KPI for Consumer Intelligence departments is misleading. Traditional marketing departments are expected to come out of a focus group with pages and pages of insights, replete with “verbatims”, truisms and clever reformulations of consumer expectations and likings. The only way of extracting this information is by interrogating potential “consumers” about their preferences.

Typically, these biased results are passed on to Development, who are obliged to comply with the insights because “the customer knows best”. This flawed process is responsible for countless famous misguided decisions, such as New Coke or the Aeron Chairs, as the journalist-writer Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly puts it in many of his works and talks. And yet, it is still the status quo. Because, how else can we know why consumers like what they like?

At NOBA, we believe that this is the wrong question to ask. First of all, it doesn’t matter so much why consumers like your product or service, as long as they buy it. However, while it might be interesting to understand the reason they buy it in order to optimize its success, we cannot expect them to articulate it properly. Hence, we always recommend our clients to shift the KPI from “insights” to “conversion” and "asking" to "observing". Our approach always begins by tracking conversion to a customer, and then understanding why.

There is an anecdote involving Pablo Picasso - most likely apocryphal-, that is often cited by artists. When asked the meaning behind one of his paintings, he responded “can you explain the meaning of a paella? Probably not, but you still enjoy it”.

The anecdote might be a slight digression from the point of this article, but it is just to remind us that we should stop trying to introspect the "why" so much and enjoy our paella in peace.


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