The first people to speak will influence you.

The first people to speak will influence you.

The first people to speak will influence you.

Imagine once more that you are awaiting your turn to speak. This time it is not to give your general recommendation of the best course of action, but to give your firm judgement on something. It might be the price you think a product should be sold for, or how long the Tories will claim that austerity is needed, or whether the price of pork bellies will go up or down next week.

You think the answer is “A”, and that is what you are going to say when it is your turn.

The first person says “B”.

The next person agrees, “B”.

And so on. Everyone before you has said “B”.

What do you say?

I have written before about reputational cascades, where you don’t say what you really feel because you don’t want to risk the bad opinion of the others in your group. However, there is another kind of cascade – an “informational cascade”. This is where you begin to doubt your own judgement because of those before you giving a different answer. You don’t go along with the others out of fear of rejection this time, but because you begin to think you must have been wrong.

Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in the 1950s on whether people would conform to the majority view in this way. He showed the group one line on its own, and a group of 3 lines. With each of 18 sets like this they went around the room asking people which line of the 3 was closest to the one on its own.

Actually, only one person in the group was a real participant. The rest were stooges, who all agreed on an incorrect line in 12 of the 18 tests. 32% of the time (about one third) the real participant went along with them and also chose the (very obviously) wrong answer. About 75% of the participants went along with the wrong, majority choice at least once.


Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Group discussions lead to more extreme views.

Group discussions lead to more extreme views.

You might think that a group discussion would temper people’s opinions as they hear different viewpoints and arguments from all sides. However, the opposite is very often true. Group discussions commonly lead to more extreme views.

Most groups are groups for a reason. They have a common purpose or goal, and therefore often have views generally leaning in the same direction to one extent or another. An clear example is a political party, but a less obvious one is the board of directors of a company. The members of the board have a common purpose: the success of the company (or at least – call me a cynic if you will – the personal bonus which may come from short term profits). They are also likely to have been chosen by the CEO, who is not likely to choose people with wildly differing views on how the company should be run.

So, although the board may seem to be a disparate bunch, they are likely to share the same ethos of how business should be conducted, just to different degrees.

It is the same with most groups. Even if they do not appear to be at first, many are self-selecting to be made up of similarly-thinking people. Because of this, any topic likely to be discussed within the group is likely to be an argument about the degree to which a proposition is correct rather than whether it is correct or not.

Let’s take a subject which might be discussed in a left-leaning political party: nationalisation of the railways. There will be some within the party who think that nationalisation absolutely must take place, and others who think that it would be a good idea on balance. There are unlikely to be many who think it is a terrible idea, because if they thought that way they are unlikely to have joined the party in the first place. The average view in that group, then, is going to be that nationalisation is a good idea.

Those with extreme views are always more vocal than those with moderate views because they are usually more certain. Those with moderate views are more considered and nuanced, seeing the value in differing opinions. Anyone who puts forward the idea that private ownership is better (if somehow they found themselves in the party) is bound to get shouted down, and is therefore less likely to voice their opinions.

Because of all this, in the discussion, the loudest and most common voices will be spouting the most extreme views, and the opposite views will not be heard at all. With counter-arguments not being heard, the average person’s opinion is only going to be pushed in one direction – towards the extreme.

Schkade, Sunstein and Hastie found exactly this in their experiments on the subject. They found that, after group discussions, both group verdicts and individual views were more extreme than they had been beforehand. They also found that consensus within the group was increased, but so was the disparity between that group and others.


Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

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