If you have ever sat in a business meeting and watched a group coalesce around a false premise or a bad decision, you might be interested to know that conformity in groups is a common experience and one that social science has studied extensively for decades.
While decision making can be affected by multiple factors including group size, time of day, location of meeting and history, conformity -- the tendency for an individual to agree with the majority’s position -- is considered by social scientists to be a universal group phenomenon. It was first reported in the academic press by Solomon Asch in the early 1950s, when he asked individuals in groups of eight to publicly state which of three lines printed on a card was most similar in length to a single line printed on a second card. The correct answer was obvious, but surprisingly, was not always chosen.
Unbeknownst to the one actual participant in the study, Asch had stacked the group with seven accomplices who acted as the other participants. Their job was to frequently choose the wrong line. The actual study participants found themselves going along with their ostensible group members who falsely stated that lines of different lengths were in fact the same.
As a result, the group frequently coalesced around a factually inaccurate decision. This finding may not be a surprise if you’ve ever experienced group decision making at its worst, but it is troubling just the same.
Given the changing nature of the workplace, and with help from our colleagues, Hannah Birnbaum from the Kellogg School of Management and Laura Babbitt and Samuel Sommers from Tufts University, we recently set out to revisit Asch’s work with one important twist: We compared rates of conformity in all-white groups -- the types of groups that Asch used -- to racially diverse groups, which are more reflective of today’s demographics.
Across three studies that drew from different samples of participants, we found that white participants in racially diverse groups were significantly less likely to conform to a clearly inferior decision compared to white participants in all-white groups. That is, in diverse groups, white participants were less likely to follow suit as they witnessed their fellow group members converge on the wrong decision.
These results are remarkable for at least a couple reasons. First, we did not allow group members to discuss, much less utter a word to one another. Rather, these results suggest that mere membership in racially diverse versus homogeneous groups reduced conformity.
Related: Why Gender Diversity Matters in Tech
Second, these findings recast what we have come to think of as “normal” with respect to the incidence of conformity in groups. Our findings in the all-white part of the experiment mirror classic conformity research, with individuals, on average, yielding to the majority opinion about 30 percent of the time. In diverse groups, this frequency dropped to 20 percent; in subsequent studies, it was even lower. Conformity in groups may indeed be universal, but these studies show that it is malleable, and fluctuates with the racial composition of groups.
These results don’t mean that diversity is a panacea nor should they be taken as evidence that diversity improves decision-making wholesale. What they do suggest, however, is that in the face of consensus emerging around a bad decision, racial diversity can ease the pressure individuals feel to follow others’ lead -- allowing them to hold fast to what they believe to be true.