Something strange happens when you put people in groups. They take on new roles, form “in group” alliances, get swept up by extreme stances, and succumb to peer pressure. In a group setting, the reasonableness of our thinking can be distorted and compromised. So it’s not surprising that the hidden sways we have discussed so far reveal themselves just as prominently within a group setting.
So begins the chapter titled “Dissenting Justice” in Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Omi and Rom Brafman. In this chapter, the authors analyze why groups of intelligent people make bad decisions, or why perfectly rational people make irrational decisions.
Throughout the chapter, Omi and Rom reference a landmark psychology study on group dynamic in which psychologist Solomon Asch showed how just one individual can shift the opinion of an entire group.
Omi and Rom describe the experiment here:
In Asch’s study each participant was placed in a room with several other people. The participants were told they would be tested for visual acuity. The task seemed simple enough: the group was shown three straight lines of varying lengths, and each person was asked to determine which of the three lines matched a fourth line. It was pretty straightforward; the lengths were so glaringly different that you certainly didn’t need a magnifying glass or a ruler.
But what the participant didn’t know was that the other “subjects” in the room were really actors, and all of them had been instructed to give the same wrong answer. As the actors called out their erroneous answers on by one, the real participant was bewildered. But something strange happened: rather than stick to their guns, most participants began to doubt themselves and their long dissenting opinion.
Time and time again they figured that it was best to go along with the group–and save themselves the embarrassment of being odd man out. Indeed, 75 percent of subjects joined the group in giving the wrong answer in at least one round.
This same sort of breakdown in rational decision making is a frequent pitfall for many chapters. It’s not easy or fun being the lone dissenting voice. The member who takes a consistent stand against bad but popular ideas will probably lose some friends in the process (this is not to be confused with Negative “we’ve always done it this way” Nancy who shoots down every new idea). But the sensible dissenter will also influence and gain respect from the people who really matter–the ones who will carry the torch once he graduates.
If you’re ever in need of inspiration as the lone dissenting voice, look no further than Sigma Nu’s history. Founders Hopkins, Riley and Quarles took a stand against a problem that was not only popular, it was institutionalized. There were probably many others who recognized that the arbitrary mistreatment of 1st year cadets brought dishonor to their otherwise noble institution. Our founders had the courage to actually do something about it.
“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”