Just for a moment, let’s put aside the real horrors of human behaviour (you know the list: genocide, rape, child slavery…) and think about something trivial in comparison. Trivial, but far, far more common, and so tragically stifling: group conformity.
When I was an undergraduate engineering student in the late 90s, I took a psychology class on the side for one semester. The story I can’t forget from that time was a 1951 study by Solomon Asch titled “Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment”. Each subject was put in a room with seven others—seven assumed by the subject to be peers, but really associates of the experiment. The eight were given dead-easy tasks to compare the lengths of lines, but every now and then, the seven conspirators unanimously gave the wrong answer.
75% of the subjects (all male students) would conform at least once, giving the same wrong answer.
I remembered that study this week while reading Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie’s December article “Making dumb groups smarter”. They cite a Columbia University study of music downloads, in which the behaviour of individuals with access to each song’s number of downloads was compared to those with no such information. The difference was huge.
We’re hard-wired for imitation and hence, limitation. That’s why I’ve always been captivated by enabling technologies and discoveries that fly in the face of contemporary trends.
But there’s more to it than that. Counterintuitively, I think group imitation brings so much instability to the world. I hate how it creates a winner-takes-all economy. We play and replay a mere handful of music, leaving many good artists to struggle. We select company boards from a very small pool of credible candidates—credible, because those candidates serve on other boards. We bring on booms and busts through herd mentality, buying and selling because others buy and sell.
Sunstein and Hastie list seven ways to improve group decision making, and they’re worth a look. Here below are three ways to improve group brainstorming and discussion, taken from my own experience:
1. Start brainstorming sessions by having every group member write down ideas in silence. If group members see a small number of ideas immediately in front of them, some will stop creating new ideas and start building on the visible ideas. Others will quietly hide their ideas if they feel they’re too different from what others have produced. When I facilitated Engineers Australia’s project to produce 1 new vision statement with 50 people, I began by getting every individual to write down a vision statement of their own.
2. Vote in open discussions by first having every group member close their eyes. It’s not always possible to hold confidential ballots, yet confidentiality is key to getting a meaningful survey. When I spoke to a room full of mentees about their program, I wanted to know the proportion who thought they gave value in return to their mentors. It’s the sort of question that gets a 0% response when audience members look quizzically at each other. The answer with eyes closed: 30%.
3. Always get group members to talk to non-group members. In my communication courses I force engineers to systematically meet staff outside their departments as homework between sessions. The result? A spike in discussions about new opportunities for the rest of the week.