How to Overcome Conformity by “Getting at the Truth”

As is human nature, if we know the preferences of a group leader, we’ll tend to conform to that preference. If you’re a group leader or care about making better decisions, that’s a problem. However, one study found a way around this, which was to promote the goal of “getting at the truth” (versus “getting along”) and to promote individual accountability for decision-quality (rather than accountability diffused throughout a group) (Quinn & Schlenker, 2002).

For example, imagine yourself in a situation where you are a middle manager. Perhaps a senior executive has indicated his or her preferred course of action. You are aware of his or her preference and the desire to conform will be strong. What can counteract this pressure? The social norm to get an accurate picture of reality, and if you have to publicly explain your position. As you imagine this future meeting, you don’t want to say you came to your viewpoint because “the senior executive said so.” Instead, if you have to individually explain and justify your viewpoint, and there is a social norm to “get at the truth,” you have a better chance to overcome the pervasive conformity pressure in most organizations.

In the research study that tested this hypothesis, the researchers had individuals primed for either “getting along” or “getting at the truth” by reading different scenarios (Quinn & Schlenker, 2002). How do you prime individuals for “getting at the truth” or “getting along?” They would read a collection of scenarios that either described a search for truth or when your behavior needed to be tailored to the situation (Chen, Schechter, & Chaiken, 1996).

For example, in the “getting at the truth” scenario, you would read about a reporter trying to get the facts of a story. For “getting along,” participants read a scenario about being on a blind date set up by a close friend but quickly realizing there was little attraction. After reading each of the scenarios, participants were asked what actions they would take in that scenario. For example, if they read the priming scenario about being a reporter, an individual might suggest going to the library to look up facts or speaking with an expert.

After reading the priming scenarios, participants then read a case study and had to choose between two different courses of action. In this case, how to allocate a marketing budget between an American and European lager. If participants had been primed with the “getting at the truth” scenario, they were more likely to choose the option that provided an “objectively better return on marketing investment.” However, if they were primed with the “getting along” scenario, they were more influenced by the choice of their discussion partner, regardless of whether it led to an objectively better return on marketing investment.

In addition, the positive effect of being primed to “get at the truth” was most pronounced when participants had to “explain and justify” their decision (i.e. being held accountable). In the case of the experiment, it was having your decision written on a “decision sheet” and shared with a partner. Accountability has many connotations, but accountability can be having to publicly explain your reasoning for a decision, perhaps in a meeting (Lerner & Tetlock, 1999).

As the researchers conclude:

“Accountability to an audience whose preferences are known does not invariably doom people to subpar decisions that are biased by conformity pressures. If people are focused on the goal of making accurate decisions when they are accountable, the quality of their decision making increases as compared to when people are not accountable or to when people have the goal of getting along” (Quinn & Schlenker, 2002, p. 481-482).

These results are a hopeful antidote to the conformity pressures faced in most organizations (and found in most social psychology experiments).

So how do you foster a motivation to “get at the truth” in an organization? At Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, there is a constant refrain and insistence that employees think for themselves and ask “Is it true?” (Dalio, 2017). Likewise, when I spoke with a Chief Investment Officer at a different hedge fund, he set up a monthly meeting with his direct report who would have to answer the question, “What is something you don’t think I want to hear, but you think is true?” Over time, this helped promote the notion of “getting at the truth” over “getting along,” and there was accountability because the CIO’s direct report knew that at each monthly meeting, he’d have to state his viewpoint.

Thus, while conformity is ever-present, if we set up the norm for “getting at the truth,” and ask individuals to explain and justify their viewpoints, we can increase viewpoint diversity in the pursuit of making better decisions.

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Chen, S., Schechter, D., & Chaiken, S. (1996). Getting at the truth or getting along: Accuracy- versus impression-motivated heuristic and systematic processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 262-275.

Dalio, R. (2017). Principles: Life and work. Simon & Schuster.

Lerner, J. S., & Tetlock, P. E. (1999). Accounting for the effects of accountability. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 255-275.

Quinn, A., & Schlenker, B. R. (2002). Can accountability produce independence? Goals as determinants of the impact of accountability on conformity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(4), 472-483.

Photo Source: fancycrave1/Pixabay

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