In Praise of the Curmudgeon

In a second attempt at pop-social science books I recently finished Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and this time I was not disappointed. I’m not sure how many studies I quoted to my wife but I’m pretty sure I met my quota for the year.

The second-to-last chapter in the book talked about the irrational pull of group conformity, read: peer pressure. The authors illustrated the strength of this pull by citing a study wherein the researchers told the participants that they would be taking a visual acuity test. Basically, they would be shown three lines of varying lengths and would be asked which of those three lines matched a fourth line. The test was designed to be easy.

The interesting thing about the test was that they would be taking it in a room with other people. The other people in the room were (unbeknownst to the participant) actors who were all instructed to give the same wrong answer. When all the actors gave the wrong answers most of the participants would give the wrong answer as well, having been pulled by the desire to fit in with the group. After hearing the answers of the actors the participants would doubt their own judgment: “Maybe I misunderstood the instructions” “Maybe I’m looking at this from a strange angle.” For whatever reason, the unanimity of the group, though they were giving the wrong answer, was enough to sway the participant.

But, as the authors of Sway point out, the power of group conformity comes from unanimity. A single dissenting voice is enough to “break the spell.” The researchers performed the study once again except that this time, one of the actors gave a different answer from the others, though they still gave a wrong answer. Nevertheless, having a single dissenter in the room was enough for most people to feel brave enough to give the correct answer (even when the dissenting actor was someone who was obviously vision impaired).

Group conformity and group dynamics

Sway moves on from this study to talk about group dynamics. Research cited identified four roles that are commonly filled in groups: the initiator, the support, the observer, and the blocker. The initiator is the person who comes up with the idea for the group and the blocker is the one who often opposes those new ideas. (Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Ferris is the initiator and his friend Cameron is the blocker). While we often think of the blockers as the curmudgeons of the group, Sway points out that these blockers play an important role.

Often times, initiators are overly optimistic and don’t see the dangers or pitfalls inherent in their plans. Blockers are like the breaks of a car. They prevent the group from careening towards disaster.

What’s more, the blockers are often the dissenting voice in the group, saving the group from the kind of group conformity thinking mentioned in the study above. Even if the blocker is wrong, and is eventually overruled by the group, they still contribute to the discussion, helping everyone to see the situation in a new light. Dissenting voices often force the majority to consider opposing positions and revise their position if necessary.

Group Dynamics, Blockers, and Church

Like any group, churches (staff, boards, committees, Sunday school classes, etc.) play by some of the same rules. In our staff meetings we have initiators, observers, supporters, and blockers. Sometimes we switch those roles around, depending on whose turn it is to speak. I have been reminded, however, of the important role of the dissenting voice. Leaders need to allow and listen to dissenting voices. Even if that voice is sometimes wrong, it forces the rest of the group to look at the situation from a different angle. Thank the blocker in you group today.