What can we learn from the psychology of qualitative research via webcam?

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If you have experienced online qualitative research via webcam, then you will already know of its disadvantages compared to face-to-face methods.  They include weaker rapport, a loss of body language and less participant motivation.  In fact, based on my recent academic review of the topic, the science suggests that the issues go further than that.

As part of my training for the Association of Qualitative Reseachers (AQR) I commissioned an academic review of psychology literature in relation to online qual. One of the useful things I learned is that if not carefully managed, qualitative research via webcam can impact how participants process the stimuli that the moderator shares with them (and therefore could result in less meaningful feedback).   

If you’re interested in learning more about the psychology of online qual, do take a look at my training series on the subject which is here. In the 2hr interactive training session, I will share a number of psychology theories and studies that have implications for doing better online qualitative research (from webcam discussions, to asynchronous text and mobile video methods). 

In this article, I’m sharing one of the papers that I found particularly interesting.  

People process information differently via webcam   

A psychology experiment by Ferran and Watts (1) compared how people react to ideas that are presented to them in face-to-face and online webcam settings.   Participants in both conditions were asked to assess dimensions such as the perceived quality of ideas, how easy it was to follow and how likeable the speaker was.   (The study involved 143 participants’ experiences of one of 19 different events, in either a face-to-face or webcam context). The results were striking.   

People will judge the speaker more than the ideas via webcam

People in the webcam group were more influenced by how much they liked the speaker than by the perceived quality of the information being presented.  Whereas people in the face-to-face group were more influenced by the perceived quality of information than the likeability of the person sharing it.  People also found it harder to follow what was being shared via webcam (compared to face to face). 

This has implications for online qualitative researchers.  As moderators, we need to design research in which the concepts being tested are evaluated on their merits (rather than superficial distractions such as how likeable the moderator seems).  In my training below I share how we can do this.   

The greater cognitive load imposed by webcam, encourages more superficial responses


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The findings in the study were explained by the Heuristic Systematic Model (HSM) of information processing.  This theory suggests that people get more distracted in the webcam group as it imposes a greater cognitive workload (i.e. mental effort) compared to people in the face-to-face group. For example, it’s harder for them to know when it’s their turn to speak via webcam, they are less social cues available and more distractions. 

The greater cognitive workload in webcam discussions, means they are less likely to evaluate concepts on their merits (which would require a more mentally taxing and meaningful ‘systematic processing’).  Instead they resort to more automatic (i.e. lower effort) ‘heuristic processing’.

Webcam encourages more biased reactions to concepts being shared

In this automatic mode, the likeability of the person sharing information has more influence over their reactions than the perceived quality ideas themselves. They are more likely to employ a bias (towards the speaker) in the webcam setting because they do not have the mental space to fully engage with the ideas themselves.

In my training I share a set of recommendations for minimising this effect and how we can make webcam groups more meaningful. We will also discuss the issue as a group and learn from each other.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, on this post too.  So please share your views and experiences of this phenomenon!   To find out more about the course click here.


Carlos Ferran, Stephanie Watts, (2008) Videoconferencing in the Field: A Heuristic Processing Model. Management Science 54(9):1565-1578.

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