Why Smart People Do Dumb Things
One simple skill to overcome peer pressure
Posted Aug 26, 2015
“If your best friend jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” Too often, the answer is yes.
Patients die because nurses and doctors, who know better, go along with bad decisions. Planes crash because crewmembers go along with plans they know could kill them. Organizations fail because employees sit on their hands in meetings, going along to get along. Social influence can turn geniuses into fools. But there’s an easy way out of this trap.
We at VitalSmarts decided to demonstrate the problem recently by repeating a classic conformity study from the 1950’s. We sat seven teenagers around a table and asked each in turn to answer a very simple question.
“Which of the three lines on this poster—Line A, B, or C—matches the line on the other poster?” The answer was obviously Line C. It was the only line that was even close.
But here’s the trick. The first teenagers were confederates—they were working for us—and we told them to give the wrong answer. They picked Line B.
This answer was obviously wrong, but we were interested in how the group’s answer would affect the final person, the actual subject who was not in on the trick. What would the subject say?
Nearly two out of three subjects went along with the crowd. They picked the obviously wrong answer. Afterwards, we asked them whether they knew they were picking the wrong answer, and—to a person—they said, “Yes.” They knew the answer was wrong, but they went along anyway, “Because everyone else was.”
This is the same result Solomon Asch found with adults: two thirds of us go along with the group, even when we’re confident that the group is wrong—and even when we’re fairly certain that our conformity will come back to hurt us! Social influence is tough to buck.
But we weren’t done with our experiment just yet. In the next round, we made a tiny adjustment: We asked one of the confederates to express polite doubt about the group’s answer. The confederate said, “I might have seen it differently. I think it’s C.”
This polite doubt had an astounding impact on our results. In this condition, 19 out of 20 of the subjects gave their actual opinion—they were honest!
Here is the "BS You Can Use": We have an innate fear of being shunned by valued groups. But, when you feel like you’re the odd person out – don’t stifle your concerns. Simply express them respectfully. It turns out this small dissent can provide powerful permission to the silent concerns of others.
You don’t have to risk being an outcast in order to test your concern. You don’t have to scream and yell. You don’t have to call others names. The quiet, polite expression of doubt can turn the rest of the group from zombies into thinkers.