Part 4: Quiet – Rescue Creativity and Reduce Groupthink – a GHC 2016 Lecture by Susan Cain

Continued from Part 3: Quiet – Attention to Detail

The best teams contain a mix of introverts and extroverts, psychiatrists find.  Extroverts help introverts state and exchange their ideas.  “You could have the best idea in the world but unless you get it out there and do something with it, it’s pretty much useless,” Cain observed.

In order to rescue creativity, we need to be come comfortable with solitude, perhaps even crave it.  I was reminded of mathematician Blaise Pascal’s famous quote, “All of man’s troubles stem from an inability to sit in a room alone.”  Cain referenced the artist and designer, Philippe Starck.  He periodically retreats to a cabin in the woods with no magazines, television or other external input.  He needs to be in solitude to create his amazing works of art.  In current day, the mystery of solitude has been denigrated and called a myth.  We need to rescue solitude in order to rescue creativity.

I have experienced this for myself in recent months.  Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data constantly flowing in from the computer and the television, I decided to turn both of them off and eat my dinner in solitude.  For the first time in a long time, I could hear my own thoughts.  This is a rewarding and enriching experience that, if repeated, can help you understand what it is you really want out of life.

Cain discussed brainstorming next.  Scientists have found that individuals brainstorm better than groups; they produce both a larger volume and an enhanced quality of ideas.  Dr. Adrian Furnham concluded, “Businesses must be insane to continue group brainstorming!”  It has been found that in group meetings, 3 people do 70% of the talking.  Audience laughter declared this to be a common experience.  I remember a member of my book club also voicing the same sentiment.

‘Groupthink’ or conformist thinking is a key component of poor performance during group brainstorming sessions.  Cain showed us a clip from a 1960s film by Sullivan and Ashe.  It depicted a social experiment with one subject and 4 researchers.  The subject is unaware that the other participants are members of a research group.

The researcher shows the 5 participants four lines of varying lengths and asks them to identify the shortest line:  1, 2, 3 or 4.  The correct answer is 3 and this is what the subject verbally selects.  The other participants verbally select line 2.  The subject is baffled by their choice.  The researcher then shows the participants a different set of lines and once again asks them to identify the shortest line.  This time, the subject lets the other participants answer first.  They all agree on line 3, even though line 2 is the shortest.  It is now the subject’s turn to answer.  There is indecision and fear in his eyes as he hesitates for several seconds, frowning at the lines and running the tip of his tongue across his lips, as if in deep thought.  “Are my eyes playing tricks on me?” he appears to be wondering.  Finally, with great reluctance, he gives his answer.  “Three?”  The clip stops.

“This result is truly horrifying,” Cain said, as our audience laughed.  She conducted an audience poll.  “How many of you think the man really knew the correct answer but was pretending?”  Several hands went up, including mine.  “How many of you think the man really believed the correct answer was 3?” Cain asked.  Several hands went up.  Cain then explained that the latter group was probably correct.  Recent technology allows the subject’s brain to be scanned while he is giving the wrong answer.  The activity in certain areas of the brain seems to be consistent with the statement that the subject believed the answer was 3.

I remember falling prey to groupthink when I was a QA Team Lead.  The other team leads and I had filled out a shared spreadsheet with comments for senior management.  When I reviewed the completed spreadsheet, I saw that my answer was different from the other team leads’; they had all written the same thing.  I asked the QA Manager for a chance to edit the spreadsheet before the submitted it to senior management.  She said, “I think your answer is fine; why do you want to change it?”  I explained that I wanted it to be consistent with the rest of the group.  “Oh … OK,” she said.  I could tell she was a little exasperated.  It’s funny how we want to stand out and blend in at the same time.

Cain’s next slide showed a photo of a smiling brunette.  The numbers 1 through 6 were captioned below the photo.  The number 4 was embedded in a square.  Cain explained the experiment:  a group of men were shown 180 photos of women and asked to rate the photos on a scale of 1-6.  They were then shown the photos a second time but with an additional piece of data:  their peers’ rating of the photo.  While this experiment may not win any awards for political correctness, the conclusion is still valuable:  the men were more likely to rate the photo higher the second time around if this higher rating matched the one given by their peers.  Note that the only intervening factor was the subject’s awareness of his peers’ opinions.

Remember the brain scan we mentioned earlier?  In this experiment, it showed that the reward centers in the brain (that rush of dopamine we experience when something pleasurable happens) were activated when the subject chose an answer that matched the answer given by his peers.  Cain observed, “Even something so seemingly deep, visceral and personal as who we find attractive is influenced by our peers’ opinions.  What is more, we don’t know that we’re doing this.”  She concluded, much to the audience’s amusement,” Without this phenomenon, the advertising industry would not exist.  We are social beings and the boundaries surrounding our opinions are not as hard and solid as we would like to think.  We have porous boundaries.”  I remember hearing, “You are the average of the top 5 people you hang out with.”  This would explain why!  This finding also underscores the importance of solitude; spending time alone and engaging in introspection allows you to discover the real you, which in turn, opens the path to genuine joy and personal fulfillment.

Continued in Part 5: Quiet – The Best Leaders

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