Neuroscience of Risky Shift

A while ago, I wrote a post about Groupthink and Risky Shift.

imageOne of the questions that has long been debated among psychologists is what happens when we change our opinions to fit in with a crowd (and there is plenty of evidence that we do – read up on the Asch Conformity Experiments, for example) .

Do we do so to conform to expectations or because our point of view really is changed by the crowd?

The Asch Experiment in a Nutshell

  • Show a group of people one line.
  • Then show them three other lines.
  • Then ask them which of the three is nearest in size to the first.
  • When all of the group are volunteers, most will say (in the example above) “3”.
  • If all but one are stooges and all reply 3, the final “genuine” volunteer is likely to agree.

Evidence at last

Jamil Zaki is a researcher at the Harvard Center for Brain Science.  Working with colleagues, Jessica Schirmer and Jason Mitchell, he has established that brain responses also shift when we shift our opinions – and they do so in a way that previous research has shown to correlate with the value we place on a stimulus.  So, we don’t just conform superficially (public compliance), but we do believe it when we fit in (private acceptance).

Read the researchers’ paper, due for publication in
“Psychological Science”here.

What this means is that the phenomena of group think and risky shift are not simply the result of people being prepared to fit in to avoid conflict: other people’s views are actually altering our perception of the evidence.

In the case of the Asch experiments, the subjects were not just doubting the evidence of their eyes and fitting in: they may have started seeing the lines differently.

The “so what?”

It’s time to take Group Think and Risky Shift seriously.  Now we know it isn’t just down to personality and character, we have to conclude that none of us is immune.


One thought on “Neuroscience of Risky Shift

  1. K


    Thanks – this is truly fascinating stuff.

    In a paper entitled Pathologies of Epistemology, Gregory Bateson argues that the evidence garnered through our senses may not be as objective as we take it to be (Unfortunately I couldn’t find a copy of the paper online – it is published in his book Steps to an ecology of mind). In support of his argument, he quotes experiments on optical illusions carried out by Adelbert Ames in the 1940s (see this article on the Ames Room, for example:




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s