In Praise of Pessimism



Many of the articles I’ve written over the summer have focused on how our opinions or beliefs about hockey are formed. I have largely focused on the influence of biases and other cognitive issues on the individual level. With the increasing popularity of message boards and the comment section of Leafs Nation or Pension Plan Puppets, our ideas are influenced by other individuals and the group itself. It turns out that when coming to a consensus as a group a single individual can change the entire group’s opinion. 

The Allure of the Mob

The influence of groupthink is powerful. Soloman Asch conducted a study that demonstrates the extent to which our opinions can be swayed. In the study participants were told that they would be tested on their visual acuity. They were placed in a room and given a simple task: “the group was shown three lines of varying lengths, and each person was asked to determine which of the three lines matched a fourth line.” There was no trickery involved “the lengths were so glaringly different that you certainly didn’t need a magnifying glass or a ruler.” But there was a catch; the other people in the room with each participant were actors who had been instructed to give the same wrong answer. How did this influence the participants?

“Rather than stick to their guns, most participants began to doubt themselves and their lone dissenting opinion.” Just how often were people swayed by the actors’ false confidence? “75 percent of subjects joined the group in giving the wrong answer in at least one round.” There are many reasons why the participants may have gone along with the group: people may not want to voice an unpopular opinion for fear of judgment by the group, or they may not feel strongly enough about the issue to disagree.

The Power of Dissention

While our opinion can be swayed by a confident group, the presence of a lone dissenter reduces our adherence to the mob-mentality. Asch found that while running the identical experiment but with one actor giving the correct answer, participants “flew in the face of the group and gave the correct response.” Interestingly enough, the dissenting opinion wasn’t always the right one, the mere presence of a different answer allowed participants to disagree with the group. 

As much as people malign those with contrary opinions for being “pessimistic”, they are valuable. They reduce the influence of group-think and allow others to voice dissenting opinions. If we want the conclusions and consensuses we reach to be the correct ones then we need to ensure that all possibilities are being considered. All too often people are willing to believe erroneous things simply to go along with the group.   

  1. Soloman Asch’s study is detailed in The Brafman Bros book Sway