May 26 2005

Thinking in groups

In one of my first posts (The Adventure Reference) I talked about what amounts to pattern recognition – the ability to interpret information and draw conclusions based on experience with similar sets of circumstances.

I was thinking about how difficult this can be the other day and, importantly, how easy for groups (i.e., boards) to sometimes lean towards a similar interpretations of events. This reminded me of a classic experiment in psychology that very clearly illustrates this point. In 1962 psychologists Schachter and Singer 1962 performed an experiment that dealt with what they called the two factor theory of emotion. Basically they were trying to show that people’s interpretation of an emotive state can be easily influenced by environmental factors (in their case another person). In their experiment they injected college students with epinephrine, which is a drug that acts like adrenaline and causes a state of emotional arousal. The students were, of course, told the injection was something else and then placed in a room with someone they thought was also in the study to ‘let the shot take effect’. In actuality their room-mate was working for the experimenters and took on one of several emotional states (anger, excitement, etc). It turns out that the subjects were highly susceptible to taking on the emotional state of the room-mate. They were interpreting their emotional arousal as anger if the room-mate was angry, excitement if the room-mate was excited and so on.

Now, I’m not suggesting that boards are on drugs (or that they should be!), but this experiment illustrates the point that humans are very good at making errors or attribution (somewhat along the same lines as the finger tapping experiment I talked about in my post on communication effectively where people overestimated the extent to which they were conveying useful information).  Something to think about when you are weighing decisions . . . especially in a group.