Andrew McLaughlin is programme director of the IMI Diploma in Organisational Behaviour and the IMI Diploma in Executive Coaching. He is an experienced executive coach who has worked with national and multi-national companies including Revenue Commissioners, Departments of Industry and Commerce and Defence, OECD and EU. Andrew is a Master Practitioner and certified trainer/ consultant of Neuro Linguistic Programming.
Social conformity makes sense for society and for the individual. At the level of society it ensures order and control. At the individual level, it makes life easier by simplifying our choices. But conformity has serious costs. Take the shopper who is told that a product is a best seller. Such information is useful as the choices of a large number of customers could contain the aggregated wisdom of those customers. The concern is that, if the shop manages to persuade the first few customers to buy the product, the buying pattern becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the quality and value of the product are no longer an issue.
The powerful phenomenon of social proof lead this country to the brink of disaster as the Nyberg report on the failures in the banking sector reported. He called it a herd instinct as the Boards of the major banks followed the lead of the aggressive lenders, forgetting the basic principles of sound lending practice. These Boards were populated by ‘the best and the brightest’, so intelligence is no defence against social conformity. Psychologists call it groupthink.
What causes groupthink?
Individuals often act out of a desire to be good group members. However these influences are often non-rational. Group members have a tendency to identify with the group and to integrate group membership with their own identity. Group members seek to avoid conflict with other group members in order to protect their self-definition as part of the group. After group norms have been estabilished, individuals become reluctant to introduce opinions that deviate from the perceived norm. Individuals assume that although they may have reservations. others endorse the norm. This is sometimes called pluralistic ignorance. Self-efficacy is a factor and this can be affected by low self-confidence, fatigue, task complexity, or recent failure. The issue is that group members who dissent from the consensus risk (or fear) serious sanctions when challenging group norms. And they are unlikely to take such a risk unless they feel extremely confident about their preferred solution. The experience of whistleblowers provides a caution to those who break group norms.
The alarming aspect is how little pressure is required for the phenomenon to activate. An additional issue is that the human mind rationalizes the decision that is arrived at by groupthink and the person is convinced that they have used a rational decision- making process.