How groupthink gets reality backward


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I do remember a lecture at university (on VRML, I think), where I spotted a problem in the code presented, but didn’t raise it in the lecture because I didn’t want to find out I was wrong. So I asked the lecturer afterwards and he had to correct everything in the next lecture. :slight_smile:

Generally, I’m happy to work stuff through in my head and not especially interested in asking questions of presenters. But then I hate drawing attention to myself.


Now I totally know how I am going to get out of answering questions or explaining things in my next meeting/presentation…

gah… still can’t get used to Hugh Laurie not being Dr. House…

Recently I’ve seen “What questions do you have?” in use - it seems to be very effective at eliciting response.


I’m reminded of an experiment I heard about with monkeys. There were five monkeys in a cage with a ladder with bananas at the top. Whenever one monkey tried to climb the ladder, the rest were all soaked with a hose. Soon they started stopping each other from climbing the ladder. Then, they took one monkey out and replaced it with a new one, who soon learned not to climb the ladder, despite the fact that the scientists had stopped the soaking. They repeated the process until all five monkeys were replaced. The monkeys still stopped each other from climbing the ladder, even though none of the monkeys currently there had ever been soaked with the hose.
I originally heard this from a friend, so I just dug up the citation to make sure it’s not an urban legend:
Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288. Mentioned in: Galef, B. G., Jr. (1976). Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior: A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates. In: Rosenblatt, J.S., Hinde, R.A., Shaw, E. and Beer, C. (eds.), Advances in the study of behavior, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, pp. 87-88:


Evidence of a learned response among rhesus monkeys or evidence of psychic ability of rhesus monkeys? (perhaps the previous subjects were sending “if it climbs the ladder, it gets the hose” vibes to the new subjects).


I was going to reply but I think I’ll wait until more people comment before committing myself.


Reminds me of the woman who used to cut both ends off of a roast before cooking it. Her husband asked why, and she said that’s the way her mom did it. He was asked again why, so she called her mom up, and she said that’s the way her mom always did it. So she called her grandma up and she said she did that because her roast pan was small and cut off then ends to make it fit.


It’s also possible that Princetonians simply lied about how comfortable they privately were with the alcohol policy. Lying on surveys isn’t exactly unusual, and the preferences people claim to have are often very different from their expressed preferences—even when there is no suggestion of pluralistic ignorance.


In 3rd year university, I decided to stop taking notes and instead focus on understanding the physics being derived in front of me. If I didn’t understand something, I asked for clarification. (My classmates, far from being annoyed by my interruptions, appreciated the chance to catch up with their frantic note taking.) I can’t overstate the impact this had on my life. My GPA jumped by 1 whole point. I had a lot more free time because I didn’t have to review my notes nightly to decipher what had happened that day. My profs started to consider me one of the smart ones (at least part of the GPA boost). Most importantly, I have never looked back in terms of asking questions when something baffles me.


Or maybe you just didn’t want to be the dick who corrects the teacher during a lecture? Of course you didn’t, because who wants to be that guy?

This sounds similar to Cory’s column in the Guardian about overcoming pluralistic ignorance around major party voting. His Kickstarter-style threshold idea seems to allow people the opportunity to make a public declaration supporting a minor party that both remains anonymous, but also isn’t even made until there’s assurance that a significant number of others have also secretly stated their support.

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But that’s what the research was teasing out - if you ask people “how much do typical students at your school drink on a typical night?” they say “X” but if you ask them “how much do you drink?” the answer on average is “X-Y.” While there may be some social desirability effect there, which the research acknowledges, there’s a much higher social desirability effect when people actually go out drinking thinking “well everyone ELSE is drinking X” and you don’t want to be the “odd man out.” So the usefulness of this research really comes into play when you’re wondering “how can we change this drinking culture?”

One answer, it turns out, is to make people aware of this discrepancy in how they see other people vs. themselves, whether it has to do with “how much do people on this campus drink?” or “how often are people hooking up?” or any other potentially harmful, sub-culturally reinforced behavior. This is the premise of “social norms campaigns” (aka “social norms marketing” - that Wikipedia entry has some serious NPV issues, so I’m linking to it for an easy layperson’s overview but buyer beware), which I was involved with back when I was a graduate assistant at my university’s health center. Basically, the approach involves finding out what the discrepancies are between people’s assumptions about those around them, and their descriptions of their own behavior, and then raising awareness about the gap. So we’d do events that included messages like “Did you know? Only Z% of XUniversity students are drinking on any given Friday or Saturday night.” Or “The average number of drinks a student at XUniversity has in one sitting is Z.” And we’d engage students in talking about their experiences with feeling like “everybody is out there getting wasted” and what the options and strategies were for moderation if they wanted to be with their friends without drinking so much. (As well as alternatives instead of drinking, obviously, but we were a harm reduction program.)

My boss was directly involved in the long-term outcome research on the model, and it was pretty interesting stuff. It was one of the few strategies that seemed to make any headway with some of the highest-risk drinkers, and I think there was some noise about testing it with high-risk sexual behaviors in groups like young urban gay men as well.

SRSLY? Did you ever actually attend a lecture in any science or math course? I know for a fact that the rule most of my professors followed was “If I haven’t made a mistake this week, make one on purpose to see if anyone in the class is paying attention.” I’m aware that the USandA does not run schools along the rigid “I speak, you copy, then regurgitate at test time” cycle that come countries still follow, but how exactly do you get to “it’s assholian to correct a factual error…” ?

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Nonsense. He’s Bertie Wooster.


Me. It’s always me. I’m absolute hell on wheels if I am forced to go to meetings, for instance.


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In psychiatry, asking “Does that actually make any sense?” is call “reality checking” and the unstable personality experiences that as confrontational and responds in a primitive fashion. Keep that in mind in your next meeting!