Risky Shift

Have you ever wondered why seemingly normal, otherwise rational, people end up doing some really stupid s**t?

Risky shift is the phenomenon where a group makes a decision that carries inherently higher risk than a decision that each of the individuals would have made on their own.

For example, your teen assures you that they would never get into a car with someone who has been drinking.  But they, and a bunch of their friends, get into a car with someone who has been drinking.  Once one member of the group makes a move in that direction, the other members of the group tend to reevaluate how they read the situation.  Everyone assumes that someone else knows something they don’t and no one wants to stand out as the naysayer.  This is especially true in a culture, such as ours, that glorifies and rewards risk.

Once a group of people start a discussion on a topic, their positions and opinions become polarized and more extreme.  Those in the middle, the moderates, are either pushed to one extreme or the other or become silenced.  I remember this phenomenon from classroom debates in junior high school.  We would start out as reasonable individuals, able to see both sides of the debate, but as time when on, passions flared, opinions became more extreme and languange became stronger.  The result was seldom pretty and I don’t recall the teachers doing a great job of pulling us all back into the middle.

Hmmm…does this remind you of a certain ongoing political party leadership race?  How many republicans find their stance becoming more extreme over the course of a primary?

The scary thing about social media and the internet, is that a group no longer has to be physically convened to experience risky shift.  You can see great examples of risky shift on facebook and online forums.  The most impassioned voices also carry the most extreme opinions and they drown out everyone else to eventually produce a community of parrots.  The passion is so extreme that dissention is eventually disallowed.

Take the parenting forum at mothering.com for example.  If you suggest allowing some crying around bedtimes and naptimes your post will be deleted.  If you suggest 24/7 babywearing and co-sleeping everyone will agree with you.  If you suggest something else, everyone will suggest babywearing and co-sleeping.

If you travel over to the birth forum and are unsure how you want your birth to go (as if any of us have any control!), you will leave completely impassioned about natural childbirth.  If you are active on the board long enough, you will eventually find yourself thinking it’s reasonable to give birth at home to breech triplets without any sort of birth attendant.  Afterall, how could so many voices be wrong?

If you are wondering about vaccinating your new bundle of joy (unfortunately the other two weren’t “meant to live” and were “born sleeping”) and simply ask for information from your on-line community you will soon think it is completely reasonable to forgo all vaccination on the grounds that they are toxic injections that cause all kinds of learning disabilities and illnesses.

If you talk to your real-life friends about these topics, there will probably be more moderate opinions expressed during the discussion.  Afterall, your friends aren’t hanging out on message boards for the sole purpose of soap-boxing.  As an added bonus, your friends will probably love you even if you choose co-sleeping and they choose extinction as a sleep strategy.  They will probably love you if your baby’s first solid food is rice cereal while their baby cut his gums on avocado.

I guarantee that you can’t say the same for most of your on-line forum “friends.”  Extremists only love other extremists and care more about behavioural decisions than the person making them.  Remember that old parenting adage of love the child but hate the behaviour?  On forums, no one loves you – your behaviour is the only thing that is important.

Some friends, eh?

One comment

  1. This is a fantastic post. Despite the fact that I’m a rational, pro-vax, scientifically-minded person whose mantra is “SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE,” I have to admit that the combination of hormones and surfing the Internet (including a variety of forums) during my ninth month of pregnancy made me question much of what I’d previously believed. I got scared about vaccinating. I wished I could have homebirthed instead of being “stuck” with the hospital. I agonized over circumcision, in the event that my baby was a boy. I returned my Baby Bjorn and bought a wrap. While I don’t regret the wrap, everything else was bulls*%t, and thankfully, I was back to my old (rational) self long before I had the chance to act on any of these fears. The sort of groupthink that takes place on these forums is frightening. In many ways, it’s predatory, and the victims are hormonal moms who just want to do the best for their babies and can’t think straight through all the progesterone and oxytocin.

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