How Groups Can Change Your Mind

If you’ve read my book Group Genius, you know about the research showing that face-to-face brainstorming groups are almost always less creative than the same number of solitary individuals. I’ve just learned of another body of research, by psychologists who study memory, showing similar group effects.* The phenomenon is called “memory conformity” and what happens is that even when you saw an event, and you remember it pretty well, if everyone around you says they saw something different you’ll often change your mind to conform to the group’s collective opinion.

Researchers have been able to make this happen fairly easily in the lab. In a common research design, researchers bring together a group of subjects and then they tell them a story or show them a short video; then later, they bring back to the lab each person alone, and basically lie to them and tell them everyone else in the group remembered something that wasn’t even in the video. Then, they give them a memory test, and sure enough, you’ve been able to change their memory from an accurate one to an inaccurate one. Not 100% of the people, but usually at least half or even more.

Two different things might be happening with memory conformity. The first is that you might have actually changed your memory to match what the group is saying. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Are we really that weak and our minds so malleable? But there’s another possibility: If you’re in a group, you might agree with everyone else just to get along, but secretly you’re convinced you’re right and you retain your own memory. That’s called “public conformity.” Your memory doesn’t change, but your behavior changes.

A new study in Science magazine reproduced these effects, while taking an fMRI brain image of the subjects’ brains. Some people changed their own memory when they learned of the group’s memory; others weren’t fooled. And for those people whose memory changed, their brain showed a different pattern of activation just at the moment when they were being exposed to the group’s collective memory. Essentially, they activated all of the brain regions associated with memory. For those people who weren’t fooled and didn’t change their own recollection, the brain regions associated with memory were not activated.

That might not be so surprising; it’s sort of common sense. But there was another more surprising finding. In addition to social conformity, the researchers tried another condition, where subjects were given the same wrong answers to the memory questions, but they were told that the answers had been generated by a computer program. Memory conformity still occurred, but it wasn’t as severe as with social conformity. And with social conformity, there was elevated brain activation in the amygdala, but not with computer conformity. The brain seems to respond in a unique way to social interaction.

I look forward to more neuroscience studies that enlighten us about how people are influenced by groups, and what happens in the brain when people are participating in groups: a new area known as social neuroscience.

*”Following the crowd: Brain substrates of long-term memory conformity.” Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond J. Dolan, and Yadin Dudai. Science, 1 July 2011, Vol. 333, pp. 108-111.

Google Buys Motorola: The Real Story

This is big news: Google buys Motorola for $12.5 billion. Why buy a mobile phone company that’s struggling? What makes it worth so much money? Why does Google want to get into the hardware business, anyway?

Everyone in the industry understands the real reason: Google wants Motorola’s 17,000 patents. Google doesn’t intend to use the patents to invent new products; instead, they intend to use the patents as defensive tools in an obscure but critical corporate battlefield: intellectual property law. Last month, a coalition of companies including Apple and Microsoft paid $4.5 billion for the 6,000 patents of Nortel Networks. Google felt threatened; they needed a comparable pool of patents to seriously compete in the legal battles that are guaranteed to follow.

The reason why legal battles are guaranteed is that every company is vulnerable. There are so many patents on software ideas, and they’re so vaguely and broadly written, that every company might be said to be in violation of something. Google’s chief lawyer recently wrote “A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 patent claims” that are probably questionable, but still you have to defend against those claims in court. So what happens is that the big guys get their lawyers and accountants together in a room, and they trade patents like poker chips. Eventually, they come to an agreement not to sue one another, sometimes in exchange for a supplementary cash payment (if everyone agrees that one pool of patents is worth more than another).

Apple, Microsoft, and Google are mature companies and they’ll work out a deal. What everyone is more worried about are the so-called “patent trolls.” These are companies that don’t make anything; they only exist to sue other companies for violating their patents. (The nice term for them is “non-practicing entities.”) You can’t negotiate with them because they don’t need anything that you have; they only want a cash settlement.

Is this the way to foster maximum innovation? I’m not a lawyer, but I have to believe the answer is NO.

Also see my previous posts on patent law:

https://keithsawyer.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/u-s-senate-debates-patent-reform/
https://keithsawyer.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/creativity-and-the-law/

The Tiger Mother is (half) Right

I’ve been thinking about Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for almost a year now. I’ve been holding off on posting about it, but the latest review (in NYRB August 18, 2011) finally got me typing. Her book is a personal story about how she raised her two daughters using a very strict style of parenting that she associates with China and other Asian cultures. It’s radically different from what most American parents do, and the huge response to the book is probably because everyone is wondering “Is this why China is kicking our butt?” and “Is this why Asian students get into the best colleges?” And, “Should I be doing this with my child?” Mostly, we really don’t want to be doing this with our children. You’ve probably already heard about how she forced her daughters to learn piano and violin, and made them practice for hours until they could play each piece perfectly (even when they were crying and miserable). Another shocking story from the book is that when her daughter made her a mother’s day card that wasn’t very good, she gave it back, acted insulted, and insisted that she make a better one. 

I can’t count how many times this past year that people have asked me, “won’t this style of parenting squash all creativity out of children?”

I ought to be lined up with all of the horrified American parents who hate this book. But I just can’t side with them on this one. Creativity is hard work, and you don’t get creativity without paying your dues. No one magically learns how to play piano or violin (I’m reminded of the old joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet.”) And as Amy Chua points out, there’s nothing like the joy that comes from being able to do something well, knowing that you earned it with hours, months, and years of hard work. As a child, I took piano lessons for eight years, and now thirty years later it’s a major source of joy in my life.

It’s also well-established that the “self esteem” movement has no research grounding. For a good critique of the U.S. tendency to give everyone awards, to lavishly praise even mediocre work, see Jean Twenge’s book Generation Me. It won’t damage your child’s emotional development if you give constructive criticism. And, there’s a right way to give praise: For the latest research, see Carol Dweck’s excellent book Mindset.

But: The tiger style of parenting is only half of what you need to raise a creative child. After all, the Chinese realize that they aren’t as creative as Westerners and they’re working hard to figure out how to become more creative. Yes, creativity requires hard work and long hours, and some amount of repetition and copying to master what has come before. But a child also needs time for open-ended play, exploration, activities without goals–because that’s when interesting new goals can suddenly emerge. My 8-year-old son spends hours inventing complex new games that bring together strange combinations of toys: last week, it was playing pieces from the Masterpiece board game, multicolored fuzzy craft balls, and disassembled Battle Striker spinning tops, all mounted on his Sit-n-Spin in a complicated race to the edge. He can’t put that on his college application, but these hours are just as important as the time he spends practicing piano or doing his homework. I believe in the value of creative play.

Another problem is that Chua’s style of parenting resulted in a lot of lonely hours, because she didn’t allow her girls to go on play dates or sleepovers. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times last January, this means the girls missed valuable developmental opportunities to learn social, conversational, and collaborative skills. And in today’s world, most creative work is done in collaborative teams, not by solitary individuals (see my book Group Genius). Successful adults need to have many unstructured social interactions as children, to prepare them to participate in collaborative creativity.

So, like many controversies, both sides are half right. And really, American parents already know this. We’re not all praise-spewing pushovers who let our kids play videogames all day in a friend’s basement. And by the end of Amy Chua’s book, she realizes that she probably should have relaxed a bit as well. Creativity requires a complex blend of discipline and freedom, hard work and play, imitation and novelty. The Tiger Mother is half right, but the American style of parenting is half right too. To best realize a child’s creative potential, bring them together.

Harvard Business Review on Collaboration

I just finished reading the July-August 2011 issue of HBR, where the featured theme on the cover is “Collaborate: Build a culture of trust and innovation.” Here are my quick summaries of the five articles:

1. Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen, “Are you a collaborative leader?” Begins with a story about Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com (see my post from the Davos WEF in January 2011). For an offsite meeting of 200 senior executives, Benioff decided to open the meeting virtually to all 5,000 employees, using an information sharing tool they’d developed called Chatter. Every manager at the meeting was given an iPod Touch and encouraged to comment in real time during the meeting, and employees could read and reply. Large monitors displayed all of the postings in real time. “The event served as a catalyst for the creation of a more open and empowered culture at the company.” The take-home messages: Make global connections; engage diverse talent; collaborate at the top to model expectations; show a strong hand to speed decisions.

2. Yochai Benkler, “The unselfish gene.” Basically is an excerpt from his August 2011 book The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest. I liked this review of the latest thinking in evolutionary biology and microeconomics. It’s probably the most scholarly of the articles.

3. John Abele, “Bringing Minds Together.” Abele cofounded Boston Scientific in 1979, and retired from the board in May 2011. I was surprised to learn that he owns the Kingbridge Centre, a classy conference center outside Ontario where I’ve done keynote talks more than once. I liked this article for its examples of collaborative leadership–people who are able to foster a collaborative network, particularly to champion disruptive innovation. His best story is of how Andreas Gruentzig worked collaboratively to convince surgeons to use his invention, the balloon catheter, which enlarged narrowed arteries without surgery. A challenging task, since surgeons were the ones most directly affected and they were potential enemies.

4. Paul Adler, Charles Heckscher, and Laurence Prusak, “Building a collaborative enterprise.” The main story in this article is of Computer Sciences Corporation and their Capability Maturity Model (CMM). What I took from this article is the importance of balancing structure and flexibility to maximize the power of collaboration. CMM is actually highly structured, but it channels collaboration and creativity more effectively than the absence of structure.

5. Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks, “Who moved my cube?” I liked this story about how architecture can, and cannot, foster collaboration. Many companies have experimented with new floor layouts designed to foster interaction and spontaneous conversations, but many of them have had disappointing results. This article explains why: you need proximity, but also two other things: privacy (one solution is to have lots of alcoves where people can retreat once a conversation gets started) and permission (a culture where casual conversation is encouraged).

An interesting set of articles, but nothing radical or new, if you’ve been following the latest writings on collaboration. Most of what’s in these articles you could find in my 2007 book Group Genius, for example. But if you’re not aware of this work, then this issue of HBR is a fine place to start.

North of Hollywood: Teachers Producing Videos

I just visited Pepperdine University in beautiful Malibu, California, as an external consultant on a fascinating research project. Professor Eric Hamilton is teaching teachers how to produce their own short videos, with each video designed to teach a specific math lesson. Producing videos sounds hard; but there’s some great new software (Camtasia) that makes it very easy to capture what you’re doing on the computer screen, and when you use tablet computers, you can also write on the screen (with a stylus) and capture that, as well.

Prof. Hamilton’s goal is to foster teacher creativity–to get them to think creatively about math concepts, and how to best present math concepts to students. I fully support this approach, because creativity research suggests that effective creativity is always based in a deep understanding of a domain or discipline (in this case, math). The key is to master a deeper understanding of math that will support and enable creative thinking; producing short videos can do that.

You can watch some of the videos that teachers made at teacherscreate.org.

Other videos that teachers can use are at TeacherTube.com

(A quick note about title of this post: Malibu is North of Los Angeles and Hollywood, just up the Pacific Coast Highway and stretched out along the Pacific Ocean.)