Mental Model: Expression Contagion

Whether you are a business leader, running a non-profit, or even a weekday book club, one of the most dangerous assumptions you can make as a decision maker is believing that people implicitly agree with you.  A lot of folks mistake lack of opposition for consent or affirmation when that is not necessarily the case.  This can create environments where nobody says what is really on their mind, bad policies get pushed through, reasonable objections aren’t raised in time to prevent problems, and people are overall less satisfied with their engagement.

[mainbodyad]Part of this is due to a trait that arose in humans as a result of evolutionary psychology.  I shorthand it all under “expression contagion”.  Namely, expression contagion refers to the fact that individuals are subconsciously wired to adjust their intellectual and emotional expressions to match the overall frequency, tendency, and tone of the social group to which they belong, opting for self-censorship if it will make them stand out too much.

For example, if you land your dream job yet everyone around you is losing their home to foreclosure, getting laid off, and watching their retirement savings get decimated, you aren’t likely to say much about it outside your immediate family and perhaps one or two friends.  If all of your friends are having children, posting baby announcements on their news feed, and talking about how overjoyed they are to decorate the nursery, you probably aren’t going to be as likely to mention that you just suffered your third miscarriage and are devastated.

The manifestation of expression contagion is everywhere, including political discussions.  Remember the Wall Street Journal article about the town from my dad’s side of the family?  It contained this passage under one of the captions:

Jami Carpenter, 32, who twice voted for President Barack Obama, says she doesn’t argue politics in El Dorado Springs because so few people agree with her. ‘You just keep your mouth shut a lot,’ she says. She moved home to El Dorado seven years ago after living in Kansas City. [emphasis added]

Sometimes, this behavior is caused by a desire to avoid conflict.  Sometimes, it is a utility calculation.  Often, it is both; e.g,. if you lived in rural America in the 1970’s, you might or might not have engaged the 90-year old bigot who was going on and on about interracial marriage because nothing was going to change his mind.  The irrational prejudices taught to him during childhood and reinforced over a lifetime would be too hard to undo before he died.

New Study Shows Expression Contagion Happens Over Social Networks, Too

A new (somewhat ethically dubious) study about expression contagion was just released by Cornell, the University of California, and Facebook.  Researchers worked with the social media giant to artificially manipulate the percentage of positive or negative posts 689,000 users saw on their news feeds over a given period of time.  They then monitored these unwitting test subjects to measure how their own posting behavior changed to reflect the tone and frequency of the status updates to which they had been exposed.  They found that physical presence – body language, and non-verbal social cues – weren’t necessary for expression contagion to take hold as people began to modify their own behavior, positive or negative, to fit in with what they were seeing.  (You can read the actual study yourself if you want to dive into the numbers.)

Executives, managers, team captains, pastors, community organizers, business owners, and charities should pay attention to the findings.  How can you overcome expression contagion in an environment where strategy or direction needs to be open to debate?  That’s something good leaders think about because they never want to be surrounded by so-called “yes men”, always approving of whatever they suggest.  You have to find mechanisms to create a safe zone where people are free to speak out without fear of retribution.  Just as importantly, you can’t undermine it if you don’t like what you’re hearing.

One of the best techniques I’ve ever witnessed is to point blank look at someone and ask directly, “Margerie, do you agree with this decision?”  You’ll be surprised how often it will be followed by a stammering and a, “Well …”  When asked explicitly, and made to feel responsible, most people fess up about their true feelings on a matter.  If they don’t, they shouldn’t be in your inner circle, anyway, because they can’t be trusted.  Of course, this assumes you are mature enough to handle whatever they might say, rather than reacting.  If they can’t be certain whether you’ll blow up about something, you aren’t going to get honesty out of your team.  You’ve created too strong a disincentive.

Personally, I think rationality helps a great deal.  If you learn to disassociate ideas from people so that you can attack the former without the latter, your output improves markedly.  You also become free to not worry about suggesting things that might be ridiculed.

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  • lokgp

    Hi Joshua,

    Isn’t this a subset of the mental model – social proof – or monkey see, monkey do thingy?

    As a boss/manager: If you can accept criticism, and just take them as feedback, rather than criticism, this is do-able. As you intend to ask for their opinion in the first place.

    But for a social group, and friends, family: This can be really hard. If you voice out opinion that is unfriendly to the group…. non-conforming, sooner or later, you find yourself, rejected by your social circle. And if its in a neighbourhood, it can be really hostile. And dangerous. So, automatically, you will go into, “Just don’t say anything mode.” And often, if in a group decision, you would have to agree, so that next time, you will be heard. Consider, Buffett’s recent Coca-Cola executive pay actions.

    Nobody is going to listen to the guy who is negative all the time.

    Well, I guess you can find some new friends.

    A further subset of this is how, social proof and expression contagion reinforces ideas : bigotry, political ideas, gold/silver bug, dieting.

    Constant refresher and reinforcement of same ideas or to people who are expression on the same idea causes conformity, and gradually causes people to be expressive themselves. Care to join a gold bug group or political group on Facebook, page, and gradually all you see on your Facebook are news and alerts that only support that particular movement. Its like building a bubble around them. Social networks, can also become a mind manipulation tool.

    Its really hard. But being conscious of it can help. The best thing we can do is to protect our own mind, right? 🙂