The Power of Group-think

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During my Bond Tour, I have been continuously asked by radio show hosts, but what about the rights of the individual?  What about enlightened self-interest as the chief driving force of business, education, sport -everything? Aren’t all better mousetraps the result of pushing ourselves as individuals?  How will we ever achieve anything significant – or win at anything - if we don’t focus on number 1?

I’ve finally got a very sound rebuttal to that – from research about sports performance carried out by a doctoral student and her tutor at Michigan State University. Veronica Son, a PhD candidate, and Deborah Feltz, chairperson of the Department of Kinesiology, designed an ingenious study on ‘self-talk’ – the internal monologue people carry out to boost themselves up before a performance.

 This is a kind of inner cheerleading is carried out by all sports performers or those about to embark on a challenging activity. It works so well, as the evidence shows (and there’s been a good deal of it – mostly detailed in my book The Intention Experiment), because that our brains can’t really tell the difference between an action and a thought.


The thought is enough

Research with EEGs has shown that the electrical activity produced by the brain is identical, whether we are thinking about doing something or actually doing it. In weightlifters, for instance, EEG patterns in the brain that would be activated to produce the actual motor skills are activated while the skill is simply being simulated mentally. Just the thought is enough to produce the neural instructions to carry out the physical act.


When an athlete performs, the nerves that signal to the muscles along a particular pathway are stimulated and the chemicals that have been produced remain there for a short period. Any future stimulation along the same pathways is made easier by the residual effects of the earlier connections.


We get better at physical tasks because our signaling from intention to action has already been forged. It is not unlike a train track laid down through wild, inhospitable country. Future performances improve because your brain already knows the route and follows the track already laid down. Because the brain does not distinguish between doing something specific and just thinking about doing it, mental rehearsal lays down the tracks just as well as physical practice does. The nerves and muscles create a pathway just as sound as one produced through repeated practice.


Me first

Most of the research to date on self-talk and mental rehearsal (focuses on internal pep talks about ‘I’ in order to build up your own confidence.


Son, who believes in the power of ‘we,’ had another idea.  What would happen to individual performance if participants concentrated their self-talk on the group’s performance as a whole?


To test this, Son and Feltz designed a study where 80 participants in a dart-throwing contest were randomly assigned to one of three different groups.  The first group were to use self-talk statements that focus on the individual’s own ability and performance.  The second were to use internal conversation that emphasized the group’s capabilities and performance, and the third, the controls, were to simply think neutral internal statements.


When Son and Feltz tallied the results, performance indicators and confidence in the team were all best in those focusing on the group. In other words, those using group-oriented self-talk displayed more confidence in the team but also performed better as individuals.


‘By focusing on the team, you include yourself without putting the focus or extra pressure on yourself,’ said Feltz, chairperson of the Department of Kinesiology at the university.


Raising the game

This study has enormous implications not only for sport but also for business, academia, even communities.  It shows that focusing on the group’s efforts naturally raises everyone’s game.


‘The findings provide fundamental information about how to effectively build positive team outcomes using self-talk focused not on ‘I’ but ‘we,’ noted Son.


What this suggests is that we are most comfortable and confident when operating as part of a larger whole.  Our natural instinct is always to merge with the other, to move away from the atomization of our individuality to the holism of the group. When we do things in groups, the rush of “we’re-all-in-this-together” elation that we feel both raises endorphin levels and eventually raise our game.


This offers proof of the old adage that there is power in numbers and also explains why we feel something extraordinarily akin to magic in groups working for a common purpose. We move outside our own individuality and into the space of the Bond.


Even thinking ‘we’ always helps ‘I’ do better.


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