Most people assume that dissenting viewpoints squash utopian visions of collaboration and teamwork. (Beware that compromise is not collaboration.)
I watched bits and pieces of an animated movie last night as I was cooking called, Happy Feet. In it, a young penguin dares to contradict the tribal elders and the wisdom of the crowd (funny, his name is Mumble yet he speaks up) to claim that the dwindling fish supplies are caused by the "aliens" he's seen (i.e. humans).
Oh, and he loves to tap dance, which I guess is a definite no-no where this young Emperor penguin hails from. One of the chiefs declares forcefully, "Dissent leads to division and division leads us to doom!"
Typical. The young penguin is immediately exiled.
Typical. "Many deal with conflicting opinions by shutting off the conversation" and "people assume that truth lies in numbers," I'd just read that earlier...
... in a research paper titled, Rogues and Heroes: The Value of Dissent, by University of California at Berkeley's Charlan Nemeth. Her research shows that "majority [viewpoints] induced compliance," while "minorities [views] stimulate more originality."
One of Nemeth's most cited studies on free association is the one that evokes a lot of intrigue around the question how do we get beyond rote, reactive, predictable--how do we grow fresh and creative?
"In study after study, when people free-associate, they turn out to not be very free. For instance, if I ask you to free-associate on the word "blue," chances are your first answer will be "sky". Your next answer will probably be "ocean," followed by "green" and, if you're feeling creative, a noun like "jeans". The reason for this is simple: Our associations are shaped by language, and language is full of cliches." - Jonah Lehrer, The Frontal Cortex blog
"How do we escape these cliches? Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley, has found a simple fix. Her experiment went like this: A lab assistant surreptitiously sat in on a group of subjects being shown a variety of color slides. The subjects were asked to identify each of the colors. Most of the slides were obvious, and the group quickly settled into a tedious routine. However, Nemeth instructed her lab assistant to occasionally shout out the wrong answer, so that a red slide would trigger a response of "yellow," or a blue slide would lead to a reply of "green". After a few minutes, the group was then asked to free-associate on these same colors. The results were impressive: Groups in the "dissent condition" - these were the people exposed to inaccurate descriptions - came up with much more original associations. Instead of saying that "blue" reminded them of "sky," or that "green" made them think of "grass," they were able to expand their loom of associations, so that "blue" might trigger thoughts of "Miles Davis" and "smurfs" and "pie". The obvious answer had stopped being their only answer. More recently, Nemeth has found that a similar strategy can also lead to improved problem solving on a variety of creative tasks, such as free- associating on ways to improve traffic in the Bay Area.
The power of such "dissent" is really about the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer - this is the shock of hearing blue called "green" - we start to reconsider the meaning of the color. We try to understand this strange reply, which leads us to think about the problem from a new perspective. And so our comfortable associations - the easy association of blue and sky - gets left behind. Our imagination has been stretched by an encounter that we didn't expect." - Jonah Lehrer, The Frontal Cortex blog
The beauty of this is not that we're converted over to another view: "We believe that the minority [viewpoint] “influenced” individuals, not so much on the perception of color but, rather, on the importance of saying what you believe, says Charlan Nemeth in her paper, http://bit.ly/rogueheroes.
By the way, by the finale of the movie Happy Feet, that young exiled penguin named Mumble, yep... Typical: He's the hero.
I first heard of Charlan Nemeth's research through the chapter on Error (my favorite chapter) in Steven Johnson's new book (recommended), Where Do Good Ideas Come From? So many people drown out voices that don't agree with them, not realizing that they don't have convert over to allow another their expression. Here Johnson sums up why one of his SIX keys for an environment conducive to good ideas is encouraging, rather than shutting out errant, "noisy" thoughts:
"When one of our peers calls the blue painting green, or [in a jury deliberation] comes to the defense of a suspect who is clearly guilty, he or she is, technically speaking, introducing more inaccurate information to the environment. But that noise makes the rest of us smarter, more innovative, precisely because we're forced to rethink our biases, to contemplate an alternative model in which blue paintings are, in fact, green." - Steven Johnson, Where Do Good Ideas Come From?
Here's a Charlan Nemeth's take on "diversity" for a speech to the National Bar Association. The first two Powerpoint presentation slides open like this:
The usual approach
• Most talks on diversity deal with legally protected categories e.g. race, age,
gender, sexual orientation and
• the dream is to “imagine” a world where categories don’t matter and where
differences are submerged
An immodest proposal
• I suggest to you that the differences will always exist and, moreso, they SHOULD
• Instead IMAGINE a world where they are celebrated and utilized
Why? Because I think that is the type of world where each person can freely share their gifts and be thoroughly creative blooming towards the widest outskirts of their potential, never shuttered if they don't "fit" in. Who wants to outlaw all flavors of ice cream but just one.
Here's a related observation, I stumbled across while searching on LeWeb:
"Rush Limbaugh, a conservative syndicated radio host, became popular because he’s a credible voice that confirms people’s existing beliefs. This is exactly how I felt about Chris Pirillo’s presentation about community. Better known as preaching to the choir, my sentiment was evidenced by the number of tweets that echoed “I agree with him” rather than “I learned something.”" - David Spark, "The Cool and Not-So-Cool of LeWeb"
So, you see, I don't want you to agree with me. I want you to agree with you. Yet, let's keep learning and growing and glowing from each other.
p.s. In comments below, do you mind sharing how you include more dissenting views into your life? Or your organization?
Bonus: A good summation of Charlan Nemeth's Rogues and Heroes: The Value of Dissent paper from the paper is: "Our own experimental studies have found that minorities stimulate a search for information on all sides of the issue while majorities stimulate a search for information that corroborates the majority view (Nemeth and Rogers, 1996); minorities stimulate the use of multiple strategies in problem solving whereas majorities stimulate the use of the majority strategy (Nemeth and Kwan, 1987); minorities stimulate the detection of solutions that otherwise would have gone undetected whereas majorities stimulate adoption of the majority solution, right or wrong (Nemeth and Wachtler, 1983). Further, minorities stimulate more originality while majorities stimulate more conventionality of thought (Nemeth and Kwan, 1985). As a consequence, those exposed to minority views come up with more creative solutions to problems (Nemeth, Brown and Rogers, 2001)."
art credits Spice Market, Orchha, India by Stanislaw Urbaniak; Yves Klein (I'm not sure name of this painting; Klein serendipitiously found he liked how the natural sponges he sued to dab on blue added texture to the canvas, and so his tools became his raw material); and even though if this is tempting scrumptious, I wish to be spared from a world where latte e mirtilli (blueberries and milk) is the only choice of gelato flavor on earth.