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One of the more infuriating experiences a moderator can encounter in a focus group is the respondent who seems to be critical of everything. Show him advertising, and he will quibble about an adjective. Show him a new product, and he will question its quality. Show him a completely different product, and he will have another reservation--Or, exactly the same one. Behind the mirror, the observers are losing their patience.

I have always responded that some people are "just like that." Not a terribly scientific response, but it seemed "right." Well, now we have evidence that this vision of consumers or subjects is based on more than just intuition. Katy Waldman in Slate draws our attention to the work of two psychologists, Justin Hepler and Dolores Albarracin, "Attitudes without Objects: Evidence for a Dispositional Attitude, its Measurement, and its Consequences."

In a series of experiments, they demonstrated that individuals display a general tendency to like or dislike objects, values, or concepts that are independent of those stimuli. They created a Dispositional Attitude Measure (DAM) based on an individual's attitudes toward sixteen independent items as disparate as Bicycles, Japan, and Taxidermy. An individual's DAM is able to predict, at least partially, his or her attitude to any new and unrelated object.

In other words, when we measure the appeal of a new concept, we are measuring, in part, the likelihood a subject will like any new concept. Is a concept rating tautological or self-referential? This is an interesting, perhaps frightening, thought. And, does it matter? It is not entirely clear that a high DAM actually translated into consumer behavior. Positive people may like things more than negative people, but do they actually buy things at higher rates?

Still, this research into dispositional attitudes does have several implications worth considering.

  • Tracking studies that measure attitudes toward a brand, product, or service over time should, perhaps, be calibrated based on the DAMs of the subjects to assure that changes observed in the attitudes measured are not the product of differences in the attitudinal disposition of the participants.

  • The same can be said of standardized concept evaluation procedures that compare concept acceptance and purchase interest scores for different new product concepts against a received benchmark of success potential. Here at C+R, we do something quite similar in our approach to segmentation research. We calibrate respondent level responses to attributes to the overall positiveness of the respondent. In other words, we adjust for the "easy grader" effect.

  • The research offers support for the value of asking questions indirectly. So, instead of asking subjects "How interested are you in X?" or "How likely are you to purchase Y?", we might ask, "How would you use X?" Then, use the number of different uses each participant names as a proxy for her interest in the concept.

  • It might be possible to use the DAM scores in the process of identifying participants for qualitative research. The scores could serve to eliminate those excessively positive and negative participants and to balance the composition of a focus group or on-line community.


Now, we have evidence for doing more than simply accepting that "Some people are just like that."