“How pleasant is the sound of even bad music and bad motives when we are setting out to march against an enemy!”

— Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher)

Diversity of thought is good for innovation, but game-changing ideas don’t come by adhering unwaveringly to one train of thought. Here is why you should never lose the ability to march away from the beat of the drums.

A Familiar Taboo?

How familiar does the following situation sound to you? A sizeable group of people — some whom you know, others you don’t — regularly and vehemently reinforce a particular opinion. They tweet, and hashtag, and speak, and profess, and it all seems eminently valiant. Their individual voices harmonise. Hell, sometimes you even so from the same hymn sheet, just to enjoy the feeling of be counted. But something about all of this itches at your ear. You know from your own reading that something in what this group is playing collectively isn’t quite right. So righteous is the movement, however, that you relegate your uncomfortable judgement to the ranks of silent taboo. You say nothing. The band marches on.

So why, in the above scenario, did you not sing your own tune? Why, instead of pulling on strings, did you allow the strings of this group’s music to pull on you?

Analysing Conformity

In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of groundbreaking experiments to study how individuals behaved under contradictory group pressure. When faced with cards like those in the picture, a group of actors (unknown to the experiment’s true subject) would unite to give the wrong answer. In the adjacent picture, for example, the acting group would answer ‘B’, even though the correct answer is, quite obviously, ‘A’. Bewilderingly, almost 40% of subjects who were not part of the acting group would also give the wrong answer, having been unknowingly influenced by the group! In follow-up interviews, some subjects reported that they genuinely believed as the group did — their view of reality had been distorted. Other subjects gave a more worrying reason for conforming the the acting groups wrong answer — they simply went with the group to avoid the awkward pain of disagreeing with everyone else.

The Twitter Experiment

I recently shared a loose and uncontrolled version of the Asch Conformity Experiment on Twitter. It helped show another curious finding from the original study. Look at the collage of screenshots below. I invited Twitter to vote for which line they believed was closest in length to the standard. At the same time, I also told those reading my tweet that an offline survey of a large group had shown the correct answer to be Line ‘2’ (spoiler alert: that is wrong). Unanimously, at least at the time of writing this piece, everyone who replied to the tweet got it right. They all (except for a few who were compelled to discuss the tweet further) said ‘3’. Even with a sole contrarian who answered ‘2’, in agreement with the original offline group, no one from the 50+ respondents was swayed enough to answer ‘2’. Why?

First things first, there never was an offline group who all answered ‘2’. Nor is ‘@PhDRector’ (who diligently answered ‘2’) a real person. This misinformation was a proxy for the real-life group of actors in the original conformity experiments. When Asch allowed subjects to answer on paper rather than out loud to the rest of the group, subjects felt far less pressure to conform. That subject could answer privately knowing that the group would be none the wiser to the fact that there was a non-conformer among them. On Twitter, everyone has the chance to quietly reflect on their answer and scroll through others before posting. Online, there is no need to prepare for any of the awkward physicality that comes with an in-person disagreement.

We are all far more comfortable at the keyboard than at the podium.

A Necessary Awkwardness

If you are finding any of this blog uncomfortable to read, good. That is absolutely how you should feel. Because, from Social Comparison Theory, our drive to self-evaluate ironically drives us into groups of people who we don’t perceive to be all that different from ourselves. Your urge to belong is stronger than your conviction towards a self-evident truth.

The Asch Conformity Experiment is a classic psychology study that reveals to us part of a chilling reality behind Free Will and Group Think.

From a leadership perspective, cultivating diverse pools of thought and the best ideas demands a stand against conformity. That’s to say, multidisciplinary leaders must invite exactly the kind if awkwardness that Asch showed we innately try to avoid! I’m running my own team, I’ve become increasingly aware of those times when conversations have glossed over widely held beliefs that we, as a team, should be doing more to question.

Creating your optimal culture is not about establishing Group Think. Remember, that no matter how attractive, or large, or inviting the group happens to be, always remember that it might one day make you hold opinions you don’t actually believe. You can support a group without reciting all its chants as gospel truths.

Beware the crowd that drowns out your individuality in pursuit of a song that hears no notes to the contrary.

How will you avoid Group Think in your own team?

Further reading:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conformity
  2. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/001872675400700202
  3. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/opinions-and-social-pressure/
  4. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41795733-range

Dr Marc Reid is a PhD chemist, academic research leader, and safety entrepreneur based in Glasgow, Scotland.

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PhD Chemist | Research Leader & Safety Entrepreneur

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