In Iconoclast, Gregory Berns talks about why we go along with the group even when we know the group is wrong.
The thing is, any creature that has survived all these years of evolution is – in the words of Neal Stephenson – a stupendous badass. And your brain’s contribution to your stupendous badassery is to help you make good decisions. It’s not proud or picky – anything that will help you make better decisions is fair game. And one of the data sources it uses is other people’s opinions.
The law of large numbers says that we are, on average, a lot smarter together than we are individually. Take a jar, fill it with jelly beans, and ask 1000 people how many jelly beans are in the jar. The average of their 1000 answers will be pretty darned close to the correct amount, even if not a single person guessed right. This means that in most cases, the group consensus is probably a better answer than your individual opinion. Your brain knows that, and takes it into account when helping you to form your individual opinion.
Where the law of large numbers goes wrong
The problem is, the jelly-bean experiment only works if you ask the 1000 people individually. If you say “How many jelly beans do you think are in this jar? The average answer so far is 42” then your subject will likely give an answer in the 30-50 range, even if a moment’s consideration would indicate that there must be at least 100. While you’re trying to use everyone else’s brain to help you make a decision, they’re trying to use your brain to help them make a decision… and one loud idiot can screw up the decision for everyone in the group.
The archtypical example
Iconoclast references a study by Solomon Asch, who gave subjects a multiple choice test where one answer was clearly right and the other two were clearly wrong. But the subjects were in a group of 8 where everyone was asked to give the answers out loud – and all 7 of the other “subjects” were actors who gave the wrong answer. And, as we’ve been discussing, most subjects caved to popular opinion and gave the wrong answer even though it could be demonstrably proven wrong. What’s worse, half the time they didn’t even realize that they were caving to popular opinion – although they gave the wrong answer 66% of the time, they said that they had gone with the group consensus against their own best judgment 25% – 35% of the time.
The good news
To make the subject give the wrong answer, the group consensus had to be unanimous. If 6 people gave the wrong answer and only 1 person gave the right answer, the subject would give the right answer. It only takes one dissenter to give people the courage to speak up against the group.
That means you, although you’re only one person, have the power to change what happens around you. A budget-blowing shopping spree can be prevented by one person saying “Let’s have a potluck instead.” In many cases, bullying can be stopped by one person saying “Back off guys; you’re not funny.” And a person who’s too frightened to try out their idea can be encouraged by a single friend who says, “I don’t know if it’ll work, but I think it’s worth trying.”
It’s not symbolic, and it’s not a token protest; it helps. Be the one dissenter.
Do you know someone with a good idea who needs to know that it’s worth trying? Why not give them an Idea Approval Certificate?
Resources for Further Reading
Iconoclast Book Review