Unlikely Heroes: The Miami Marlins Break the Glass Ceiling

Classic conformity research explains why the Marlins' decision is a big deal.

Posted Nov 15, 2020

Finally. Finally! The Miami Marlins, long a laughingstock of Major League Baseball, have broken the unrelenting conformity that characterizes the sport's front offices: They hired a female General Manager. Let us be among the masses of commentators to say it’s about time. As MLB.com reporter Alyson Footer noted on Twitter, “Let's be perfectly clear here. Kim Ng has been among the most qualified GM candidates for the past two decades. She has always been capable of running a Major League team. This isn't a risky hire – it's a smart one, by a team that obviously wants to win a World Series.”

In other words: Kim Ng is overqualified; she should have been a GM a long time ago. And, if we want to extrapolate, she would have gotten a GM gig already if she was, well, a dude. Clearly, it’s unfortunate that it took this long for a team to break the glass ceiling. At the same time, decades of psychology research suggests that it takes just one. Now that this chip has fallen, we should expect other teams to follow suit. 

Which line matches?

Here’s the setup: You’re among 5 other participants sitting in a room, arrayed along a table facing forward. At the front of the room, an experimenter holds up a series of cards with three lines of varying length. Your task is to judge which of the two lines are the same length. Starting on your right, the other participants who, unbeknownst to you, are confederates of the experiment, call out their answers one-by-one: “1”, “1”, “1”, “1”...then it’s your turn. 

This same sequence – experimenter holding up three lines, confederates making judgments, and then you making a judgment – plays out several times with different sets of lines. The first handful of trials go off in orderly fashion: Everyone, including the confederates who make their judgments before you, gives what is clearly the correct answer. 

After a while, though, things get squirrely: Despite the correct answer remaining obvious, the “participants” in front of you begin giving what is, clearly, the wrong answer: “2”, “2”, “2”, “2”...then it’s your turn. 

Do you give what is, obviously, the correct answer (“Line 1!”)? Or do you cede to the pressure of the group and give the incorrect answer?

If you were a participant in one of Solomon Asch’s famous social psychology studies of the 1950s, 75% of you would have gone along with the incorrect majority at least once. For reference, in pilot testing without confederates present, participants made the correct judgment 99% of the time. In other words, people’s incorrect judgments were not mistakes; they were purposeful instances of conformity. 

Unanimity Breeds Conformity

Asch did a bunch of variations on this basic line judgment experiment, including having participants rate the lines privately and increasing or decreasing the size of the group. In perhaps the most impactful variation, one of the participants in front of you breaks the incorrect unanimity: “2”, “2”, “2”, “1”...

Just having one ally in this pressure-packed situation reduces conformity greatly – seeing someone else break the string of incorrect responses drops the conformity rate from 75% to 5% [1]. So, in all likelihood, in this setup, your response would be the correct one; you wouldn’t conform.

The Marlins Are the Ally

What does all of this have to do with the Marlins’ move to hire the first female GM in the four major American sports? The Marlins are the ally from Asch’s experiments. Until now, each time a qualified woman was in the running for a GM position, the No’s that teams continued to proffer served to reinforce each other. In other words, the teams were conforming to each other’s incorrect answers. 

Just like in Asch’s studies, having one team break the string should break the dam and allow other teams to more easily hire other qualified female GMs. Even better, the Marlins’ serving as an ally should result in other longstanding conformities being broken. Our (probably not so) bold prediction for what’s next: Becky Hammon, currently an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, will be named an NBA head coach, becoming the first woman to hold that title. 


[1] Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1–70. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0093718