We are social animals – we have an innate desire to be connected and aligned with others. In order to cultivate this feeling of belonging, we too often go along to get along, stay silent about what we genuinely believe or lie about our private thoughts. In simple terms, our behavior changes when we’re in the company of others. In a famous study of restroom behavior, 77% of people washed their hands when they thought they were being observed; 39% did so when they believed they were alone. This is known as the conformity bias: a subconscious reflex to say or do what we believe others expect of us, whether it’s true or false.
To compound this error of cognition, more often than not we narrow our sources of information to selected in-groups and draw comfort from being included in tribes whose members we think agree with us, regardless of whether our assumptions about them are correct. We become vulnerable to disbelieving the evidence of our own eyes and ears in order to avoid feeling like an outsider. This inimitable consequence of our neurology was further ingrained in our childhood. Our profound fear of social embarrassment makes us reluctant to blurt out the obvious – that, per Hans Christian Anderson’s fable, the emperor may in fact be butt naked.
We lie in an effort to belong. When we feel connected to others, our brains release oxytocin – a bonding hormone that increases the feelings of affinity for those in our tribe. This neurotransmitter pushes us to prioritize the group’s interests over our own and, when necessary, to defend it against threats or attacks from nonmembers. It also makes us more likely to adopt their mistaken views and even lie for them about positions we personally disagree with. Such is the power of the hormones that fuel our emotions and over which we have little rational control.
Spending time with those who share our beliefs reinforces the group’s vision and its mission. It strengthens trust and cooperation. It validates and reaffirms our self-worth. Our own identity becomes so tied up with our tribe’s raison d’etre that being ostracized or expelled from it is like the kiss of death. Which is why, if we aren’t aware of this entrapment, we become complicit in the worst forms of groupthink and collective delusion.
When we start excluding those who are “not like us,” we become less tolerant of diversity and embrace misguided stereotypes. The influence of peer pressure is so compelling it can outweigh common sense and empirical fact. We feel comforted and reassured when we’re able to simplify and draw our social worlds in black and white, because shades of gray and nuance are just too difficult to sort out.
It’s especially difficult to push back when we think someone is more expert, influential or prestigious than we are. Often they’re none of these things – we’re just easily deluded by their self-assurance. The more we hear a story, whether truthful or not, the more we think it’s true or commonly accepted as true, even when we know that only one person is repeating it over and over again. This is called repetition bias – saying the same thing again and again so that, eventually, familiarity trumps rationality and the oft-repeated message starts to “feel” like the truth. This natural proclivity to assume what people say or do is an honest reflection of their private thoughts is a bias that frequently gets us into trouble. Because it’s not true – most people rarely say what they really think.
While repetition of a message has no logical connection to the truth, it becomes an unseen trap door for our beliefs. Sadly, politicians, bullies and leaders have used this trap for generations. And social media exacerbates this bias by acting as an incubator and hamster wheel of disinformation. Only 10% of tweeters account for 80% of the messages. These vocal minorities create the false impression they’re speaking either for or as the majority. Since most of us tend to mistake repetition, confidence and volume for truth, minority views eventually become accepted as reality regardless of their veracity.
Being a copycat is neurologically hardwired in all of us. Imitative behavior is essential to our conduct as social beings and is so hardwired we do it even when we have no reason or will to do so. The urge to understand and empathize with the experience of others is driven by our mirror neurons. At an unconscious level, observing certain movements automatically triggers our brains to prepare our muscles to copy what we see. When someone smiles at us, we automatically smile back.
Aligning our behavior with others allows us to build a connection with them. This instinctive mimicry is something we never outgrow; it’s a part of who we are. Psychologists call it the chameleon effect – a social glue that enables our survival but also pulls us into relationships that may not serve our better interests. This yearning to go along with the crowd is an inescapable part of life, even when we know their views are fictional. It’s why we’re at risk of not only misreading others but also why we conform to what we think they expect of us. In essence, in their presence, we generally stop thinking for ourselves and surrender to what we assume are their beliefs.
Most people do care about being in the majority, or being seen as such, even when they don’t necessarily care about the majority’s opinion. We’re so enamored of being among the greater number that it makes us less willing to voice unpopular opinions. Being out of step with the crowd, despite our beliefs, makes us feel vulnerable. Just as we harbour a deep anxiety about being ostracized, we have a biological fear of isolation. (This fear manifests itself in infants as early as 19 months). Caving in to the predominant viewpoint diffuses our sense of personal responsibility to make good decisions and to own up to our mistakes.
This inbred desire to play it safe leads us to rationalize or explain away our silence. We say to ourselves, “It’s really not going to matter if I speak up.” My opinion “isn’t going to change things” or “I don’t want to risk being seen as different.” If getting a promotion is deemed important, it doesn’t feel like a great idea to challenge the boss when he or she makes an inappropriate remark or insensitive joke. “Is there anything that wrong about being silent and seeing where this goes?” Shutting up is a crime of omission, not commission, so what’s the real harm in saying nothing? Keeping quiet about controversial matters is what we were trained to do as children. Since we’re born to copy one another, silence replicates itself in group behavior and becomes exponential. This is why bad behaviors are generally tolerated.
In the corporate world, where peer pressure runs high and speaking truth to power is not the norm, silence can prove dangerous. In one large study of the success of corporate strategies, 93% of respondents said their company risked major problems when people were unwilling or unable to speak up. At NASA several decades ago, engineers were too cowed by their higher-ups to voice their concerns about the potential for leaking O-rings on the shuttle Challenger. This resulted in an explosion 73 seconds after take-off that killed the entire crew.
By choosing silence, we make it more likely that a minority of sycophants eventually becomes the majority. By keeping quiet, what we excuse as a matter of either irrelevance or inconvenience emboldens the bullies. Self-censorship generates a false impression of disinterest that stymies productive debate. Each time we conform to the growing affliction and absurdity of keeping our true feelings within, we feed this downward spiral of silence. The interesting thing about slippery slopes is that the gradual exposure to increasingly counter-productive behaviors more than doubles the rate of their occurrence. Eventually it’s so ubiquitous it becomes the new normal. By failing to speak up, we turn into collaborators and enablers.