The danger of group consensus

I’m almost finished reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, a guide to introversion that contradicts society’s emphasis on the extrovert ideal. Aside from the fact that I love the book (review forthcoming), one of the many studies that Cain cites sticks out in my mind. In a chapter titled “When Collaboration Kills Creativity,” she shows that the a group’s output is not always greater than the sum of each individual’s contribution; instead, it can actually be worse than one member alone might achieve.

In the study conducted by Gregory Berns*, in which 32 volunteers were shown 2 different 3D objects and asked to decide whether it would be possible to rotate the first to make it match the second. When they did this task alone, participants gave the wrong answer 13.8% of the time. When they were in a group in which members gave unanimously wrong answers, the individual gave the wrong answer 41% of the time.

This isn’t too surprising, since going against everyone else is likely to cause us to change our minds, assuming that the majority is right. The interesting part of this study comes from the fMRI data obtained while the participants made their decisions. When participants answered the question on their own, their occipital and parietal cortices, areas associated with visual and spatial perception, and the frontal cortex, and area implicated in decision-making, showed most activity. However, when they made their decision as a part of the group, the scans showed more activity in the occipital and parietal cortices and less in the frontal cortex.

The conclusion: group consensus actually changed the participants’ views of the problem. This study suggests that people don’t conform because peer pressure causes them to doubt themselves. Instead, they believe that they independently came up with the same answer put forth by the group, and therefore conform because of the power of suggestion.

This is a little frightening to me. If a group can alter our perception of a problem (and convince us to genuinely believe in an answer that’s incorrect), we should probably question the previously-unquestioned insistence that collaboration is the key to innovation and productivity. As a person who cringes every time a teacher proposes group work, I’m game.

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*I’m repeating what Cain reports about this study because I haven’t read this book… yet.

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