Social Contagion at Work

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Futures Rambling # 104

Last week I exercised my rights of free agency and personal empowerment by unplugging my desk from the octopus it was tethered to and rolled it across the studio to the spot previously occupied by Peter Titmuss. It took about three minutes to link to a shiny new octopus and voila, I became a member of a new team.

Since the name is less than self-explanatory, an octopus is part of BVN’s boom & octopus combination that allows each of us to re- configure our studio environment at will. All desks are on wheels and both power and data drop from fibre optic cables nestled in overhead circular booms that connect to a host, or octopus, which supports up to eight desks.

Why move desks rather than people you ask, isn’t that somewhat hypocritical coming from people known for flogging alternative working? The answer is poor performance of programs like Revit, V Ray, Rhino or Grasshopper over Wi-Fi. For those who know me and are spitting their coffee on their keyboard, no I’ve not upskilled. But there are others here who are far more talented and unburdened by technical challenges than I who’d be crippled.

For organisations like BVN, extreme flexibility opens many doors, some like enabling teams to reorganise are fantastic, others are a work in progress. For example, we’re currently drafting guidelines that clarify when and how one can roll, otherwise to quote our office manager “it would be a real shit show.” And even though you would think it unnecessary to remind architects not to park in fire exits or blocking loo doors, the guidelines will dictate exactly where you can stop rolling.

In parallel, we’ve embarking on a research project intended to track desk movement. This is critical since a successful rolling studio will inherently rely in part on human nature. We all know that just because an individual has the right to roll, doesn’t mean they will. Humans abandon privileges all the time, just look at American voting records. The psychological aspects of rolling we might explore are plentiful: what inspires one to roll while others are happy to stay still, do some people have roll phobia, is the fear of recrimination due to location real?

We also wonder whether people will learn anything from rolling. Perhaps some will become roving studio journeyman, or roll to locations where they’ll amass skills or positive behaviours via osmosis? The hypothesis could be tested on me, we can take note if I’ve become more hip sitting next to Sebastian and a wiz at photoshop, or if being in the mere vicinity of Selina encourages me to learn Revit.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, particularly if you know anything about social contagion. I recently learned about this theory listening to an interview with Dr. Gary Slutkin, a physician and infectious disease control specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago. He knows plenty about spreading things.

He also happens to live in a city where the murder rate surpassed 1400 in July; therefore, is well placed to pursue his vocation of studying infectious disease along with his other passion, the spread of crime. Cure Violence is the program he founded that’s being rolled out across cities in the US. It marries both spheres of Slutkin’s expertise and led him to suggest the spread of violence through a community happens in the same manner as a contagious disease.

Take something nasty like Ebola, your chances of contracting the disease increases with exposure and the disease spreads quickly or slowly depending on specific factors: age, overall health and living conditions. With violence the factors are exposure to gang wars, riots or childhood abuse. The evidence that Slutkin has amassed contradicts the common belief that violent acts are random. Instead, he suggests it follows the patterns of contagion and both disease and violence cluster in time and space.

Social science has reached similar conclusions about behaviours. Attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours move through populations like infection, they spread rapidly and are often accepted uncritically. Given the human condition is a combination of both a biological and social process, and each rely on replicated instructions, you can start to see the connection. In biology a gene is reproduced, in social processes it’s a meme, or culture.

It’s called social contagion and applies to both good and bad behaviours and the concept is by no means new. In 1774 Goethe’s publication “The Sorrows of Young Werther” inspired so many people to commit suicide that both book and Werther clothing style were banned. The Werther – effect is now a synonym for media induced imitation.

Social learning theory posits we learn social memes and behaviours by directly experiencing, observing and imitating and make cognitive inferences based on our observations. Back to our studio, based on the theory of social learning and contagion it is entirely plausible that I might develop new skills because of where I sit, or at least adopt an attitude or aptitude to learn.

Of course, we must be mindful not to spread bad behaviours, the research says this can be minimised by limiting exposure or inoculating people against the effects. Currently the only really bad thing that I can think of that could infect the studio would happen at the Christmas party when the New York crowd comes over. As far as I know there is no inoculation against stupid and our colleagues do live in the same city as the Trumps and may be infected. We should be thankful to have no office in Canberra.

 

Sources:

Bushman, Brad J. PH.D, “How Violence Spreads Like a Contagious Disease” Psychology Today, May 31, 2017

Niederkrotenthaler T, Herbert A, Sonneck G.; The “Werther-effect”: Legend or Reality?” Neuropsychiatry 2007; 21(4)

Jack, B; “Goethe’s Werther and its effects – The Lancet Psychiatry”, The Lancet, April 30, 2014

Marsden, Dr. Paul, “ Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” The Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1998 Vol 2.

Slutkin, Gary MD, “Violence is a Contagious Disease”, National Academies Press (US); 2013 Feb 6. II.9, Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207245/

“How Treating Violence As A Disease Could Help Prevent It”, Here and Now, PRI WBUR, March 22, 2017

 

 

 

Groupthink

Futures Rambling #86

By Laure Aznavoorian

The political satirist Jon Stewart began a recent show saying “I think we’d all agree 2014 was not a great year for people.” He referenced the attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and then went on to say that he hoped 2015 would bring a respite, we can only hope.

The Daily Show’s goal was not to make sense of the events, because they said, there is no sense to be had. Most of us would agree, attempting to apply logic to the killing of people who draw cartoons, manage café’s in Sydney, or attend schools in Peshawar baffles most scholars, and they are significantly more educated than the rest of us.

Even if we eliminate terrorist’s motivation from the conversation, we’re still faced with a conundrum in the aftermath of shocking events and that is determining what it means to our rights and our lives. It used to be that in places like Australia, America and most of Europe we could say what we pleased, satirize and criticize to our hearts content, regardless of whether or not we knew what we were talking about.

Most people generally accepted that with these freedoms comes a responsibility to not gratuitously offend or compartmentalize, and it is this acknowledgement that creates the challenges we all face now. We know we must resist the urge to: throw out the baby with the bathwater, judge the entire group for the actions of one and beat our chests demanding responsibility. But it’s so damn hard.

It’s our natural tendency to turn hypocrite – we #jesuischarlie out of one side of our mouth and then demand tighter migration policy and the silencing of Islamic extremist out of the other. The reactions are understandable, particularly when you consider the role a powerful force like groupthink plays.

The term Groupthink was coined by the social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, it occurs when a group makes faulty decisions due to group pressure. Group members are generally of a similar background, they insulate themselves from outside opinions and have no clear rules for decision making. The negative consequences are ignoring alternatives, taking irrational actions and dehumanizing other groups.

In his book Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes Janis documents eight symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

This list reads like an al-Qaeda entry application. Of course we westerners would never make dumb decisions due to groupthink. What’s that, oh yeah – the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq before allies other than the ‘coalition of the willing’ could be convinced to participate. Never mind.

Collaboration is a veritable watchword for this era, we believe including others in decision making process generates better ideas and shelters us from mistakes, but that’s only if groupthink doesn’t stand in the way of honest analysis. A group of dumb people can be just as dangerous as one dumb individual; the worst part is groups can be made up of very smart individuals and they may still behave as a dumb group.

This was highlighted in 2010 study at M.I.T. that set out to define the characteristics of smart teams from those that weren’t. Each volunteer took an individual I.Q test, but the teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score any higher than those with members whose average was lower. And the teams with more extroverted and motivated people also fared no better when it came to the team’s success.

Therefore, you don’t need to have smart, extroverted or highly motivated people in your team for it to be good, so what do you need to be? The most important ingredients are to communicate a lot, allow members to participated equally and recruit people with good emotion-reading skills. That’s the ability to pick up complex emotional states from people’s eyes.

A surprising result the research delivered was the characteristics of smart teams were the same whether they worked face to face or on-line. Not surprising, the MIT researches learned teams with more women performed better than those with more men! This was attributed to women being better mind readers as opposed to men being inconsiderate dopes. It came down to what they call “Theory of Mind”, which is to consider and keep track of what others feel, know and believe.

Applying this new science of effective teamwork in organisations will help businesses immeasurably. In addition to enlisting people on your team who possess these characteristics, you can go one step further and actively avoid groupthink by applying the following tips, again from Irving Janus:

  • Assign each team member the role of critical evaluator.
  • Avoid stating preferences and expectations at the outset.
  • Routinely discuss the groups’ deliberations with a trusted associate.
  • Invite one or more experts to each meeting.
  • Assign an articulate and knowledgeable member to the role of devil’s advocate.
  • Survey warning signals from rivals and construct alternative scenarios of their intentions.

One of the most important aspects or characteristics of an organization, or community, is to find balance. Even though different groups may develop their own subculture, they still need to function as a team and work toward a common goal. Leaders set those goals and create culture and it is up to them to manage and maintain an environment that supports it, and they need to do that without silencing the views of individuals who cut against the grain.

Imagine if we were smart enough to do this in our communities. We wouldn’t need initiatives that curtail free speech like Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that make it unlawful to: “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people because of their race or ethnicity”. Nor would we need to fire university professors for tweets or arrest dumb kids who post stupid things on Facebook.

Sources:

Breakey, Hugh. Charlie Hebdo Attack: When Should we Hold a Group Responsible for a Member’s Evil? The Conversation, January 8, 2015

Janis, Irving L.  (1982).  Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.  Second Edition.  New York: Houghton Mifflin

King, David R. PhD and Demarie Samuel M. PhD. Understanding Organizational Culture Using the Culture of Music. Graziadio Business Review, June 2014

Phiddian, Robert. Cartoonists are Defiant in Their Response to Charlie Hebdo Attack. The Conversation, January 8, 2015

Switzer, Tom and Hemmer Nichole. The Right Way to Tackle Offensive Speech. The Age, January 20, 2015

Woolley, Anita, Malone, Thomas W and Chabris Christoper. Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others. The New York Times, January 16, 2015