People seek to appear independent when communicating online

Social science tells us that, in face-to-face meetings, people tend to modify their true opinions in order to preserve group harmony. Many have presumed that the Internet, a more remote social medium, fosters just the opposite—an airing of genuine opinions and attitudes, the antidote to groupthink.

Yes and no, according to new research by Ann Schlosser, an associate professor of marketing and Evert McCabe Faculty Fellow at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Schlosser finds that people do indeed respond more independently in computer-mediated discussions. But their responses are no more authentic and no less filtered than in face-to-face meetings.

“Everyone knows that in face-to-face groups people are more likely to conform,” Schlosser says. “But on the Internet, they’re also managing their impressions to an opposite end: to appear more individual and unique—but unique in a desirable way.”

Me vs. we

In two studies, Schlosser measured each participant’s evaluation of a new car or restaurant. Then she placed them in focus groups to discuss the new market entries—either in person or via an Internet chat forum. She found that in both settings the participants’ responses veered away from their privately held opinions. But the face-to-face group responses migrated toward consensus while the Internet group responses migrated away from consensus with a range of independent opinions.

A third study measured the way that people view themselves in relation to others in the two group settings: me versus we. Schlosser found that simply adding a thumbnail picture of each participant in the online group resulted in a conversation that resembled a face-to-face group: responses migrated toward conformity. The slightest hint of visible social connection—even over the Internet—can foster a sense of togetherness and support conformity.

“When you’re together in a group, just seeing everyone creates this sense of ‘we.’ And when there’s a sense of we, you feel like you should maintain group harmony,” Schlosser says. “In a computer-mediated group you view the others less as a ‘we’ and more of an audience. So how can I show the others that I am an independent thinker?”

Camaraderie vs. new ideas

Schlosser says these findings can help managers better understand the behavior of remote work teams, online product reviewers and participants in Web-based focus groups.

“In terms of organizational behavior, there is an assumption that communicating via the Internet yields unbiased responses and puts an end to groupthink,” Schlosser says. “While people meeting in computer-mediated groups are not giving in to conformity, they are participating in measured nonconformity in an effort to appear more unique and autonomous.”

Remote groups may be good for generating ideas, but not so good at building camaraderie.

In focus groups and product review chats, Schlosser suggests that individual opinions should be taken with a grain of salt: “Computer-mediated groups can be useful when the goal is to gather worst-case criticism or a diversity of responses.”

Schlosser’s paper, “The Effect of Computer-Mediated Communication on Conformity versus Nonconformity: An Impression Management Perspective,” is published in the July 2009 Journal of Consumer Psychology.