Why shouldn’t little boy-moderators play with dolls and little girl moderators with toy cars?

13Bias is the Boogie man of qualitative research. It lurks everywhere around us: recruitment, stimuli, but, more importantly, moderation. Moderation can bias the results of research big time. Questions like “You like this, don’t you?”, remarks like “of course by this you mean …” are textbook examples of don’ts. But moderation bias is more insidious than that. It can originate in the tone of voice, dressing style, age, gender, body language etc. So, the little boys and girls moderators are careful to wear adequate clothes (resembling in style and price with those of the respondents), to have a similar phone, similar tastes (drink what they drink, smoke if they smoke, eat if they do), similar type of humour etc. before starting to play. Let’s say that the research agency has an IDI with a 35 y.o. housewife, mother of two, low to medium income, user of medium tier shampoos. Will it send the 25 y.o. little boy, a big fan of punk music and user only of premium shampoos which he “barrows” from his girlfriend? Or the 32 y.o. female that has a child and does her own shampoo shopping?

For the sake of the argument, let’s say that the boy is the only one available. So, the agency sends him. In this case, he will say to the respondent that he’s 28 y.o. so to narrow the gap, wind down his hair style, wear a shirt, borrow a low end Nokia from a colleague, say that he has a little nephew and generally lying his pants off to get the respondent think he’s her best friend. And, in the end, the moderator has to be a respondent’s best friend, so he has to be as similar as possible. But is that enough? Not really, because when getting to the part of usage habits, the respondent gets embarrassed to talk about how she’s getting naked in the tub. And so, there is a last thing the male moderator has to change. Fortunately for all you male moderators out there, it’s no need to. And here is why:

1.     First of all, respondents are usually not retarded. They will find it very odd that you “by accident” are so similar to them. And pretty soon they will start to challenge you.

2.     Moderating is hard enough without having to watch everything you do and say in order not to blow your cover. Giving attention not to reveal your “secret identity” will take a lot of your energy from the actual moderating process.

3.     And, most importantly, if the ideal would be to have a perfect identical moderator for each respondent, then why do we even bother to interview her. The moderator can meditate a little about the discussion topic and directly write the report.

In order to find another trap of this line of thought, let’s go back to the research agency and send the female moderator to do the interview. She is pretty similar to the respondent, as you might remember. So she has no reason to lose any energy by lying. She is practically her best friend. But, wait a minute, she still doesn’t find out what happens in that tub. What is happening? Well, the respondent is acting as a friend. And between such good friends that have so much in common there is no need for too many words. Certain complicity is born. You can spot it in phrases like “you know…when you enter the tub…” and then a smile. And the female moderator would say “well people are different so please tell me from your point of view what happens”. And the respondent replies “well it’s obvious. Aren’t you a woman too?” and so forth. The harder the moderator presses in this point, the more likely it is for the respondent to get annoyed and say anything just to get off the hook. The friendship is gone. And so is the interview.

So, what if we would drop all this similarity ideal and go for alterity? What if we would say to the respondents:  “I am different from you. I am a young man trying to understand how you wash your hair. I have no clue of how you do it, so please explain it to me in great detail. Being such a stranger to the subject will force me to ask you a tone of what may seem stupid questions, but please bear with me and make me understand”. I have tried it and it works. You wouldn’t believe the openness you are treated with after they understand your position. And that is why I know what happens in that tub.

In the end, here is a thought for all the girls and boys moderators: let’s just admit that it is impossible not to bias the data. Being alive means that we constantly interact with everything around us and by doing so we alter those things. There is no way to control all the variables coming into play in any interaction, may it be qualitative research or going to a movie. In fact, all we can do is to be aware of this and try as much as possible to take it into consideration in our analysis.



8 Responses to “Why shouldn’t little boy-moderators play with dolls and little girl moderators with toy cars?”

  1. I remember a survey done on this particular subject – how to get more form women in the bathroom. I don’t remember the product (shower gel or body milk), but the point is women will tape themselves naked when taking shower if provided with the proper incentive. So you really don’t need an interviewer all the time. You can use other methodologies – as being an observer for an intimate issue 🙂

  2. Fair point about how women and men moderators interact with respondents, and how there is a dose of bias no matter how good you are. But the true mastery of moderators comes from deep human understanding – what triggers a certain behaviour? when is she telling the truth and when is she lying? and most importantly, why?

    anyways, regarding the moderators now, I challenge you to find a topic I could not moderate as a woman. because I bet you cannot moderate tampons! 🙂

  3. yellowsubmarinequal Says:

    Corina can I have that tape? 🙂 For research reasons of course.
    About the moderator you are right, there are ways of avoiding him alltogheter, still you need some explanation of the things happening on that tape, explanations that can only be provided by the respondent…guided by a moderator.

  4. yellowsubmarinequal Says:

    Hey Dana. I was going to say testicular cancer but then I remembered that I actually know a very good lady moderator that did Viagra groups. So tampons huh? Bring it on :).

  5. cum ar fi sa moderam in baie 🙂

  6. I’m 40-ish and have done quite successful groups among men my dad’s age about post-prostate surgery incontinence. I have also done feminine care groups where I showed respondents that there were men in the back room. In all cases, the key is Unconditional Positive Regard. Respondents know if they’re being played, and they recognize both insincerity and true empathy. Also, to the point made in the post, given a skilled, sensitive moderator, MORE can actually be learned if respondents feel they have to start from scratch and explain everything.

  7. Somehow i agree with what you’ve stated: sometimes it is better to be the dumb and not to play that role – it is more authentic and respondents feel and therefore act accrodingly.
    Nevertheless, i believe that more sensitive subjects need a more empathic and soft presence (and by saying this i do not mean that men moderators are not emphatic enough). Actually I think she-moderators are somehow perceived as challenging respondents perceptions in a more cozy and friendly manner, therefore not threatening in any way.

  8. I was trained in ethnographic methods principally, where of course the whole point is that you are coming in as an outsider to the situation. So if I perform interviews, focus groups, whatever, my standard stance is “I am trying to figure out what it is like to be a person like you in your situation.” I NEVER try to make myself “more like” an interviewee. In fact sometimes I specifically do not comment on similarities, because people are more willing to explain things when they do not think you know anything about the topic.

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