Author of “Ten Types of Human”, Dexter Dias QC (a previous guest on the innovation show) shared a fascinating study conducted by Dr Marian Wong. Wong studied the social behaviours of the coral-dwelling goby fish, which live in close-knit social groups amongst the coral reefs off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
Goby tribes defend their small patch of coral from predators and other gobies. Gobies work together with the clear understanding that they must obey social norms or risk being evicted from their own patch, eviction signalled certain death. In Wong’s words, “Once they’re outside the coral, they’re basically eaten. Stay in the coral, you’re safe. Out? Eaten. So it’s pretty serious. It’s a credible threat. The coral is safe. The group is. But there’s no such thing for fish as a free lunch…
They have to pay to stay.”
Sizing up the Competition?
Wong noticed that the fish would often line up in a very precise pattern. In goby societies, there is a dominant male and female followed by several females. When the group “lined up” they did so by decreasing size. But why?
The fish lined up in order of decreasing size to show that they were respecting social hierarchy and not threatening the dominance of the next biggest fish. Remarkably, they remained exactly 0.93 the size of the next fish in the hierarchy. It is important to note that size matters greatly to goby, the unrestrained and unmonitored growth of subordinates is considered as a threat to dominant fish. It is also worth noting that although the smaller fish grow more rapidly than larger ones, they regulate their eating to stay within the social pecking order. Goby self-regulate their growth to remain small and unthreatening to remain within the tribe.
Such behaviour is not unique to animals, it happens in human tribes. While we need not worry about being eaten if others eject us from the tribe, social isolation is a real psychological threat. Psychologists like Solomon Asch and our guest on this week’s Innovation Show, Elliot Aronson (amazing episode) found when we go along with what everyone else is doing, the resulting sense of belonging can strengthen our sense of belonging and identity. However, this sense of belonging and subsequent conformity can blind us to unacceptable behaviours and often leads to sub-par decision making.
For some of us, going along to get along causes emotional pain and a feeling of inauthenticity, we feel untrue to ourselves and it weighs heavily on us. “The reward for conformity,” Rita Mae Brown said, “is that everyone likes you but yourself.”
Nonetheless, it takes a lot of courage to go against the grain, to paddle one’s own canoe, to resist conformity. The irony is that the progress of humankind depends on those people who resist conformity who embrace what Rollo May called creative courage.
In his book, “The Social Animal”, Elliot Aronson shared a study about conformity when coupled with accountability. Can Accountability Produce Independence? To answer that question Andrew Quinn and Barry Schlenker put people through a procedure aimed at producing conformity to a poor decision.
Participants went through a priming procedure to focus them on the goal of compatibility or accuracy and then worked on a business decision task. Participants learned that another member of their group advocated a specific (actually sub-par) solution and expected to explain their own decision to this person or not (accountable vs. unaccountable condition).
The people who showed the most independence and made the best decisions were those who were oriented toward being accurate and had to explain their nonconformity to the very people whose influence they resisted.
It is interesting to note that the people in this condition behaved with greater independence than those people who were oriented toward being accurate but were not held accountable. What this suggests is that most people will go along to get along unless they know that they will be held accountable for a dumb, compliant decision.
This is extremely important when it comes to change initiatives. It means that people will be more engaged when they are involved and held accountable. When they are disengaged and really don’t care, nor have any accountability, why would they ever take on such a stretch goal as a change initiative?
THANKS FOR READING.
That episode with Elliot Aronson is here: