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Study explores what prompts us to deviate from the group

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Despite the clamor amongst organizations to appear innovative and radical, being such brings many risks to us as professionals.  I’ve written a number of times about the apparent unpopularity of innovators, with creative people generally looked upon as having less leadership potential.

Studies have suggested that being radical requires excellent emotional intelligence to ensure that you know the right battles to pick.

Indeed, it’s even been suggested that women bear a heavier burden in this than men, and are often regarded negatively when they propose radical things.

As you can see, it’s a well trodden field in terms of research.  Does a recent Stanford University study add much to the mix?

They explore just what it takes to go against the feelings of the group, and suggest that people are more likely to speak up if they think the group should think as they do, but don’t.

“The concept of emotional nonconformity can further advance the existing knowledge of how social changes are formed and communicated,” the authors say.

The study looked specifically at some of the darkest moments of human history, and the courage required to speak up against injustices such as the horrors of Nazi Germany.

“Deviant individuals can exist in almost every society, even in the most strict and ruthless ones such as Nazi Germany. These deviant group members serve as an opposition to the opinions of the majority and can also differ from the majority in their emotional experience,” they say.

When several hundred participants completed a questionnaire that was designed to provoke an emotional response of guilt or anger.

For instance, white participants may have been asked to read an article about a white only high school play, before being asked whether they agreed with standing up to such prejudice.

Key findings

The study produced a number of key findings.  For instance, people of a more left-wing stance reported much higher levels of group-based guilt.

Their right-wing peers however tended to feel group-based anger when responding to injustice.

The interesting part is what happens when these emotions aren’t invoked.  When the group didn’t feel sufficient collective guilt, it prompted participants to increase their own personal guilt levels, except that is when the situation was ambiguous in some way, at which point they fell into line with the collective thinking.

It highlights the kind of conditions that prompt us to divert away from the groupthink.

Beware an angry radical

The primary cause of diversion from the norm is a sense of anger against our existing group for not doing the right thing.

Emotional burden was also a factor however, with this tending to arise when the group doesn’t react appropriately to a situation, thus encouraging individuals to take on the burden on its behalf.

It confirms the apparent duel nature of humanity, especially when it comes to group behavior.

“We know already from Aristotle that people are both emotional and regulated, spontaneous and calculated,” the authors say.

“We always think about groups as spontaneous, irrational, emotional entities that are overflowing with emotions in an unregulated manner,” they continue.

The findings suggest however that the kind of groupthink and conformity that has been used to explain some of the worst inequities in history may not be entirely right.

Whilst conformity to the group is indeed powerful, it isn’t the only factor influencing the way we behave.

After all, even the strictest groups are likely to have deviant subgroups within them that think and behave differently.  These subgroups may break off from the larger one, or try and change the culture from within.

Suffice to say, most workplaces won’t involve the kind of moral dilemmas used above, but the study may nonetheless provide some fresh insights into just what it takes to encourage deviance from the norm amongst employees.

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