How Social Acceptance Fuels Decisions Good and Bad

Salt Lake City—What do basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and parents who don’t believe in vaccinating their children have in common?

A stubborn insistence on following their perceived crowd, even in the face of evidence pointing elsewhere, said New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell.

Speaking as part of the Qualtrics Insight Summit on Wednesday, Gladwell noted that often, people can make decisions based on who else is doing it, rather than taking the option indicated by evidence or education.

Case in point: In the legendary basketball center’s first professional season, he quickly proved to be one of the best players the game had seen—except for his free-throw percentage, which was around 40 percent, Gladwell said. The following year, Chamberlain tried changing his free-throw form, shedding the traditional overhand shot for a two-handed “granny” toss. His free-throw percentage jumped to around 70 percent, Gladwell said, but the next season plummeted back to 40 percent as he reverted back to the old style.

Gladwell cited Chamberlain’s autobiography, in which the player wrote that he knew the unorthodox throw was better for his game, but felt stupid doing it.

“It’s not his beliefs that were the problem, it’s his threshold,” Gladwell said.

A person’s threshold is the amount of social acceptance they require to change their behavior. A radical might be able to change behavior without anyone else doing it first, while a very socially conservative person might require virtually everyone else to do something before they engage in it. People in general tend to be fairly socially conservative, Gladwell said, and tend to look to their peer group for behavioral cues.

When education fails, many look to incentives as a means to change behavior, but Gladwell said he believes those, too, fail. Chamberlain had the incentive of making more money and improving his team’s performance by changing his throwing form, but still felt social pressure to stick to the more socially accepted shot, he said. In professional football, data show performances of first-round draft picks are only slightly higher than second-round picks, but cost substantially more—thereby limiting the amount teams can pay other players. Yet, team owners and general managers still frequently trade several second-round picks for a single first-round pick, he said.

The same phenomenon is found in social issues, such as a small but growing number of parents who believe that vaccinating their children could cause neurological disorders, he said, and is highly touted by celebrities such as model and actress Jenny McCarthy. The belief is based on a study by a doctor whose work has been widely discredited—yet the movement persists, Gladwell said.

“If you’re already in a position where you’re following a Playboy bunny blindly, I’m not sure a rational conversation about data is going to help,” he said, noting that incentives of vaccinating include protecting one’s child and the children around them from potentially deadly illnesses. “You can argue until you’re blue in the face about vaccinations, but I don’t think education or incentives will work.”

National debates only serve to embolden anti-vaccine advocates and push some parents unsure of whether it is safe to vaccinate their children to skip the immunizations. Instead, he said, national debates should be shelved, and more education and policy efforts should be targeted at areas with a relatively large percentage of parents who do not vaccinate their children, such as Southern California.

“We need to make it so the parent facing that decision [to not vaccinate] doesn’t feel like they’re part of the crowd. We need to make it so the parent facing that decision feels like a radical,” he said. “We have dignified people with highly irrational beliefs by saying this is a subject worthy of national debate.”

Gladwell also noted this social conservativism extends into the political sphere, where political candidates are often ridiculed and criticized as being “flip-floppers” for changing their stance on an issue. While candidates may sometimes change their stance in an effort to align themselves with popular opinion, Gladwell said that criticism can also be launched against candidates who have changed their mind after finding out new information—a skill that is actually desirable for leaders.

Leaders in the workplace can find themselves between that rock and a hard spot, as well, he said, and offices should take care to make sure leaders feel as though they can change their position as new information becomes available, and that they will receive support after making those carefully considered decisions.

“You have to model a set of behavior in your workspace that says ‘It’s OK to change your mind,’” he said.