I don't know about you, but those focus groups with their instant responses on the screen are driving me nuts. I want the Commission on Presidential Elections to outlaw them next time -- well, it's four years away, but still.... in the second presidential debate I could not keep my eyes off CNN's green and orange lines of men and women responding to the debate second by second. I even thought I could make some sweeping generalizations about the way men and women react to different topics. (It turns out that the only valid take-away was that women seem to react more quickly than men. But any other generalizations are pretty weak.) Bottom line -- it's distracting and completely unscientific to boot.
Nate Silver has a great piece in his website today on the squigglies as he calls them. Focus groups of thirty people are, of course, nearly completely unrepresentative of the voting public at large. They are not randomly selected. They are often paid for their participation. They are not geographically representative. And the potential for one strong participant to influence the others is a factor that distorts the responses. As we watch the debates, we too are influenced by the response lines, and after the debate is over, the influence of these small groups increases disproportionately.
As Nate says:
The problem is that the squigglys may give thirty random strangers from Bumbleweed, Ohio just too damned much power to influence public perception. The squigglys influence the home viewers, the home viewers participate in the snap polls, the snap polls influence the pundits, the pundits influence the narrative and -- voilà! -- perceptions are entrenched.
We are sold the value of focus groups by the TV networks, and indirectly by the Commission on Presidential Elections because they allow them, without being told all the reasons why we should pay no attention to them. Focus groups may be useful for marketing purposes, because the group can be led to a conclusion about cereal or milk that helps the product manufacturer sell more of that product. But what we are almost never told by the networks, is that the quick answer and reaction is "thin sliced", as Malcolm Gladwell would say in his book Blink.. It's a off the top of my head kind of response, whose value is only as good as the top of your head.
All the networks and cable channels are doing focus groups now, so I suppose it is too much to ask them to stop this, but I'd like to give it a try. Please, spare us the embarrassment of listening to people who are still undecided about this election and whose opinions, much like those of Joe the Plumber only represent a n of one person -- themselves.
The answer, of course, is to watch the debates on C-Span. That may be a fine solution for some, but there will be millions still watching on Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN -- all who will be treated to the instant responses of a group of people who most likely know even less than we do about the issues.