Culture & Society

Why Seeking Common Ground Can Backfire

Research shows that conversations between people seeking common ground can influence which ideas and people gain cultural prominence.

June 01, 2009

| by Alice LaPlante

The best baseball players don’t always get elected All-Stars. And the Nobel Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving member of the scientific community. This, according to a pair of recent studies, is because such recognition can depend upon how well known an individual is rather than on merit alone. Moreover, because it’s human nature for people to try to find common ground when talking to others, simple everyday conversations could have the unfortunate side effect of blocking many of the best and most innovative ideas from the collective social consciousness.

“In our research, we found that people are most likely to talk about things they think they have in common with others, rather than topics or ideas that are more unusual or striking,” said Nathanael J. Fast, a PhD student at Stanford GSB. Fast is one of three authors of the paper “Common Ground and Cultural Prominence: How Conversation Reinforces Culture,” with Chip Heath of Stanford GSB, and George Wu of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. “This has the effect of reinforcing — or even institutionalizing — the prominence of familiar cultural elements over ones that are perhaps more deserving.”

To investigate their hypothesis that conversations between people seeking common ground can influence which ideas and people gain cultural prominence, Fast and his colleagues performed two studies centered on professional baseball. In the first experiment, the researchers paid subjects — who did not know each other — to discuss baseball players. Participants were given a choice between talking about more familiar players who had mediocre seasons, and less familiar players who had fantastic, All-Star-worthy seasons. Study participants were given the names and critical performance metrics — batting averages and number of home runs — of a defined subset of major league baseball players so they wouldn’t have to depend on memory to know how successful a season a given player was having.

“As it turned out, familiar players — even those with mediocre seasons — were more prominently discussed because they provided ‘common ground’ for the conversation,” said Fast. More participants selected well-known players (66 percent) than lesser-known, higher-performing players (34 percent) to discuss with their conversation partners.

Furthermore, this effect extended well beyond baseball novices. The researchers compared what baseball “experts” — self-identified fans who were likely to know all the players used in the study — talked about with other fans versus non-fans. “We found that fans talked about the players they were most confident they shared with their conversation partners. They emphasized the better-performing players when talking to other fans, and gravitated toward the familiar, but less impressive, players when talking to non-fans,” said Fast. This seems to suggest that the very people able to educate the rest of us — those with the greatest knowledge and expertise — opt instead to feed us the information we already have.

These effects were extended in a second study. Fast and his colleagues analyzed online discussions specifically about players who were All-Star contenders in two different baseball seasons. Because All-Star players are chosen based upon voting by fans, the researchers predicted that the most well-known players — independent of how they actually performed — were both more likely to be discussed, and more likely to be picked for All-Star teams. This, in fact, turned out to be true. “Being more familiar makes a player serve better as common ground for conversations, which, in turn, leads people to be more likely to vote for the highly discussed player,” said Fast.

In many ways, Fast’s and his colleagues’ research validates the idea of the “Matthew Effect,” so called by sociologist Robert K. Merton after a Biblical passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Popularly paraphrased as “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” the Matthew Effect as applied to the research by Fast, Heath, and Wu implies that the more people are talked about, the larger a role they play in society — and the more they will subsequently get talked about. This creates a self-reinforcing ramping up of social prominence that is not necessarily deserved, according to Fast.

For example, there is no shortage of celebrities famous for just being famous — Paris Hilton being a recent phenomenon. And members of the scientific community, including Merton, have long argued that well-known scientists receive more than their fair share of credit for joint discoveries with lesser-known scientists. Critics have accused the Nobel Committee of ignoring scientists who did important work on a topic and awarding prizes to other, better-known colleagues.

All this has important ramifications for business managers because it can impact the cultures that emerge in their organizations. “The point is not that quality doesn’t matter in the marketplace of ideas,” said Fast. “It does matter. But it is critical to remember that the most prominent people in your organization are not always the ones producing the highest-quality work; they might just be better at selling themselves.” And, perhaps more important, “leaders and change agents should try [to] introduce the ideas and elements they would like to be absorbed into culture in ways that make them serve as fodder for ongoing conversations,” said Fast. “That could have a big impact on whether they quickly fade away or stick around for good.”

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