Bandwagon Bias

Did your parents ever say “ . . . if your friends all jumped off of a cliff . . .”? You always knew they were about to lecture you about the danger of following the crowd for its own sake. Go ahead and roll your eyes but they were on to something. It is a dangerous walk to follow blindly just to save your brain muscles from the strain of exercise. Bandwagon Bias is not necessarily self-explanatory. It is similar to the concept of Groupthink but the two terms are not identical point by point. Say it how you like, but it is damaging to the workplace just the same. Journalists and psychologists including Irving Janis have helped to grow the discussion of this type of bias which is now used to analyze the failures of groups, companies, countries, and NASA. 

Political scientists and reverse engineers often search for this bias in the aftermath of a disaster. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, we can see with 20/20 vision how our modern world still struggles with age-old warnings about not wanting to be the naysayer on the team. Without naysayers, how will we keep ourselves in check? Remember the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes? The crowd applauds as the emperor parades through the streets with nothing on. It isn’t until a young child points out the obvious that the crowd finally recognizes or admits the truth. This group mentality even has some darker tones in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is simply the paradox of knowing the path of the herd can be the plague and still assigning it as the cure. 

Solution to Bandwagon Bias

As much as we fear disagreement in the workplace, our diverse opinions can actually be the nutrients to keep the business alive. They also keep any single opinion from dominating prematurely. It is similar to what Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wanted when they penned Federalist Papers 10 and 51. Not only do these papers give us the Separation of Powers maxim, they also portray factions (groups divided by opinion or cause) as beneficial. Remember playing King of the Hill? It was nice to be King, but when you weren’t, you didn’t want to charge the hill alone. Does your team have a “King of the Hill” whose opinions or ideas are never questioned? Are you that king? Factions, or various opinions, may be irritating at first glance, but at least they can also serve to stabilize the organization. 

In the workplace, management should consider this solution by design. Most of us are familiar with Brainstorming, and we realize how tempting it is to shoot down an idea at the first hint of its failure. I have seen teams do pretty well at withholding judgement during the brainstorming stage of a meeting, up until the King of the Hill (i.e. the manager) begins to fall into that pit. 

The many ideas of the team are essential to be voiced without prejudice. Even if managers have a vision of the direction the team should go, giving team members a chance to chime in is vital to their sense of value. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire” Madison says regarding whether to allow the masses to voice their opinions (The Federalist Papers, No 10). In today’s world, our nation is so vastly diverse, that Madison’s favored design might be more applicable in organizations than in countries. 

Larger teams may worry about time-consuming meetings where everyone has a say. Perhaps temporarily dividing teams for a particular project is more helpful. Two or more workgroups can be presented with the exact same problem for discussion and resolution. Different solutions or even solutions that seem to contradict each other is not necessarily a bad thing. These factions must acknowledge one another as being valid and intentionally formed for the very purpose of pitting one potential bias against another. 

In the end, one solution must prevail–even if it is a compromise or a combination of the multiple ideas. Regardless, the chance to share voices ensures a better harmony in your workplace.

Does Your Mind Go Blank Sometimes?

During my senior year of high school, my choir teacher picked me to sing a solo for the upcoming concert. The song was Ave Maria, and my part was a simple two-line phrase in the middle of the song. It was all in Latin, and rhythm was not critical for my solo. However, it was much harder for me than I anticipated. The lyrics and tune were so foreign to me that my brain sort of rejected it any time I tried to practice. 

As the day of the performance drew near, I was feeling tremendous stress, and sadly, at that time of my life I had not taken the concept of stress management seriously. I just pushed it to the back of my mind as much as I could. The moment finally arrived, and I stood on stage in the spotlight to sing. The pressure had finally hit full force, and my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember the words, the tune, or whether not I was wearing socks. I just sort of stood there not doing anything for a few moments. I had no choice but to fake it, which did not go well. Fake Latin lyrics do not easily flow in situations like that. When I finished, the awkwardness of standing in front of the audience was almost as bad as turning around to face the choir and stand with them again as they tried to finish the song. 

Embarrassing right? Yes, but decades later, I still use it as an awkward story to tell at parties. It is also a good reminder of what can happen to our brains under high stress.  

Has this ever happened to you? At some point in your life have you had that “deer in the headlights” moment where you needed a cerebral jump-start? Scientists have found that under acute stress, the brain will automatically shift away from the current activity (e,g, singing in front of a crowd) and it will jump into the fight or flight response. The primitive brain is ready for running, but not for methodically recalling Latin lyrics. The stress hormone cortisol goes up, the heart beats faster, and regions of the brain associated with reasoning and creativity reduce dramatically. This fight or flight response is part of our DNA which helps us to escape immediate danger, like running away from a wild animal

In absence of wild animals in our daily routine, the brain still uses this process. Stage fright is only one manifestation of this response, but it can come anytime you experience high stress. Whether that is during a performance review with the boss, answering the phone, or presenting in a staff meeting, the blank brain can be a big problem. 

So you might be asking if there is a way to prepare your brain so that it won’t skip out on you at the very moment you need it. I believe you can. In addition to practicing your craft, whatever it may be, you can train your thoughts through mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation therapy that has received a lot of attention lately. The general idea (or at least one of a hundred ways to describe it) is that mindfulness is a practice where the individual achieves a mental state where they are aware of the present moment and accepting of all of the experiences of that moment. 

To begin, find time to slow down and take a step back to evaluate your habits. Slowing down is not just a strategy, it is the canvas on which we draw the blueprints for our most effective strategies. Next, find a place to sit somewhere quiet, focus on your breathing, and focus on the moment by taking in the sounds, colors, shapes and other details of your surroundings. Some people add the concept of a gentle hug or tapping of the arms as a signal to your brain that you are preparing to be calm (Brown 2020). My voice teacher always told me to touch my forehead before performing as a way to remind my brain and nerves to relax. 

The exact method for mindfulness is up to you, but do your research. There are many books, articles, and YouTube videos on the subject. Over time, your practice of mindfulness may help your primitive brain recognize that the current stress you are experiencing is not a predator trying to catch you. And until then, if your mind does go blank when the boss asks you for the quarterly reports, you can always use mindfulness as a way to calm down when you get home. 

Brown, Alan, and Em Morrison. “Fight, Flight, and Mindfulness in Response to Overwhelm.” Mindful Schools, 6 May 2020.