Sway: Procedural Justice, Monetary Motivation and Group Conformity

In my previous posts around some of the concepts outlined in Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour we covered the powerful forces of Loss Aversion and the Power of Commitment as well as Value Attribution, and Diagnosis Bias. In the final post on this book we will cover two new concepts, the undercurrents of Procedural Justice, Monetary Motivation and Group Commitment.

Procedural Justice

This concept covers our expectations around fairness. Game Theory has done a great job of revealing this in various experiments, and this concept also has deeper cultural implications.

One particular experiment has shown this very simply, run out of Germany. Called the Splitter experiment, two people are placed in separate rooms, not being allowed to speak to each other (so remaining anonymous). One person is given ten dollars, and is allowed to divvy this money up as they see fit between themselves and the other person, the catch being the other person can either choose to accept it, or reject it so both parties get nothing. The game is only played once.

The data revealed something interesting - 50/50 splits almost always resulted in acceptance, but a split such as 80/20 resulted in rejection by the other party the majority of the time.

From a purely rational perspective, the person receiving the money should take whatever is offered to them - after all any money is better than no money. However, the game exposed our deep rooted belief in fairness, and the lengths we go to defend it. 

Again, where this gets even more interesting is in a variation on the experiment. In this other version, the person is paired with a computer that would split the money. In this instance, the other party would accept the unfair offer the majority of the time - showing that it is the process (our feelings in the fairness of the procedure) not the outcome that cause our irrationality.

One final interesting point on this experiment was a variation played out in a very unlikely place. Deep in the Amazon jungle resides the Michiguenga tribe who have been isolated from the rest of the modern world for centuries. How would the Splitter experiment play out in this society?

By and far, the Michiguenga offered the other party very low splits (the average was 85/15). And even though this was low, the other party accepted it the majority of times. When questioned about it, they viewed it as luck that the primary person got the money, and the small amount offered to the second person was viewed as a generous gift.

How Does This Play Out in Real Life?

Two interesting examples were explored in the book that show this in a real life situation.

Firstly was with prisoners. Regardless of the crime they committed or the punishment they received, their satisfaction of the sentence most often hinged on the amount of time the lawyer spent with them. They were less likely to be angry about a long sentence if they felt their lawyer gave them a greater opportunity to voice their concerns.

The second example is in Venture Capitalists. Again, from a purely rational standpoint, a good VC investment should be judged favourably if it makes you money. However, VC's were found to be placing greater weight to entrepreneurs if they provided more frequent and timely feedback which would lead to more favourable opinions.  

Remember that fairness can be an irrational force that can sway decision making.

Monetary Motivation

Business managers, parents and economists have long operated under the assumption that monetary incentives increase motivation. New research has shown that this isn't as black and white as you would think - there are situations where this could cause a disincentive.

Through MRI brain scanning, experiments have shown that when there is money to be gained or lost, the brain activates an area called the nucleus accumbens. From the book:

"The nucleus accumbens is, evolutionary speaking, one of the most primitive parts of the brain, one that has traditionally been associated with our "wild side": it is the area of the brain that experiences the thrill of going out on a hot date, that sparks sports fans' exuberance when their team pulls out a last-minute victory, and that seeks out the excitement of Las Vegas. Scientists call this region the pleasure centre because it is associated with the high that results from drugs, sex, and gambling."

In essence then, financial compensation reacts in the same place we react to illicit drugs; a monetary reward is biologically speaking like doing a tiny line of cocaine!

The same MRI brain scan study was conducted for altruistic behavior. Interestingly, this lit up a completely different part of the brain, with very different results. From the book:

"But a completely different region of the brain, called the posterior superior temporal selcus, kept lighting up. This is the same part of the brain responsible for social interactions - how we perceive others, how we relate, and how we form bonds."

The way the brain works, unlike areas that control movement and speech, these pleasure and altruism centers cannot both function at the same time - either one or the other is in play. And when these go head to head with each other, the pleasure centre has the ability to hijack and dominate its altruistic brethren.

Because monetary incentives present a strong allure to the pleasure centers, it can distort our thinking. The problem however isn't with the rewards themselves - it's only when you dangle the possibility of the rewards ahead of time that the pleasure centre gets excited even more than the attainment of the reward itself.

Anticipation drives addictive behavior that suppresses altruism. Keep this in mind.

Group Conformity

Our last sway covers group conformity. In group dynamics, some very powerful psychological forces can come into play, and startlingly a single individual can shift an entire group's opinion.

Science has uncovered that while the sway of group conformity is hugely powerful, it does depend on the unanimity of the group for its power. This is the key to managing it.

In an experiment, a person was placed in a room with three other people (all secret actors, of course). They were asked to look at three lines of different lengths, and outline which one was closest to a fourth line (in the experiment it was very obvious which one was closest).

All of the actors were called and gave the wrong answer one by one. And a strange thing happened - rather than give the right answer and be the lone dissenting opinion, over 75% of respondents gave the same wrong answer. 

When this experiment was conducted again using a variation, one of the actors gave a different answer different from the other two. This single dissenting voice was enough to break the spell - it in essence gave "permission" for the real participant to break ranks. But even more interestingly, the break away actor didn't have to give the right answer to inspire participants to voice their opinion - it just had to be different from the majority.

The Blocker

Studying reality television has revealed a very interesting pattern that emerges in group dynamics, built around four distinct roles.

The first role is the Initiator. They tend to have ideas, start projects, or advocate new ways of moving forward.

Next are Blockers. They tend to find faults with the initiator plans, and pick holes in arguments. Blockers are often perceived as negative, but as the above states, they play a very vital role in group dynamics.

The initiator and blocker invariably lock horns, which is where the third group, the Supporters step in. They usually take one side or another.

The final group, the Observers stay fairly neutral, and merely comment on what is going on in the conversation ("It seems we are having a disagreement about 'x'").

In organizations, it is easy to get enamored by Initiators - they bring fresh ideas and enthusiastic energy to the table. Often then organizations shun or avoid individuals with Blocker tendencies. With the sway associated with Group Conformity, they may in fact be required to prevent the group from going down a disastrous path. Even if the opinion is wrong, it adds perspective to the debate and views the problems in a different light. 

A great example outlined in the book in in pilots. NASA developed a system called Crew Resource Management (CRM) for cockpit interaction that teaches pilots and co-pilots to be objective blockers with each other as decisions are made. This has drastically improved air safety, and the invariable loss of life associated with it.

How To Avoid Them

Avoiding Procedural Justice

The steps here are twofold. Firstly, make sure you weight things objectively - don't succumb to emotional maneuvers or moral judgements when making decisions or reacting to to others. Second, if you are in a management position or reporting to anyone, make sure the other parties feel like active participants and are involved. If you allow the voicing of discomfort or uncertainty, people will be less hurt with the overall results.

Avoiding Monetary Motivation

This one is pretty simple - be very careful if you announce any sort of reward (especially monetary) ahead of time.

Avoiding Group Conformity

The solution here is in the form of the "Devil's Advocate". This term was coined in the Vatican with Papal nominees. A priest was tasked with taking the devils position during the interview to ensure no direct group sway. Consider tasking an individual with this role in any sort of group decision making environment. 


There are some much deeper insights and research on all three of these powerful sways, so I would highly recommend picking up the book. Grab a copy, and get a better understanding of the undercurrents that might be affecting your decisions.

This post continues my series on Mental Models.