Illustration from The Emperor’s New Clothes
(featured image: illustration from the Emperor’s New Clothes via Wikimedia)

The non-non-conformity bias

How what we believe other people think leads to a peculiar kind of inaction

Koen Smets
6 min readDec 3, 2021

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Picture the scene. A bunch of young adolescents, all dressed up, awkwardly sitting on the chairs surrounding an empty dance floor. The music — a popular song that some are silently singing along to — is loud (not too loud, of course), but nobody moves. The young people keep on eyeing each other until, eventually, a group of girls sitting together gets in a huddle and suddenly, they all jump up in sync, and start dancing. Within seconds, everyone else has joined in, and the school disco has officially started. What took them so long?

You may recognize this scene — perhaps even first hand. It is as if self-consciousness peaks around the age of 13. A teenager’s social status is a precious good that they are loth to jeopardize. Yet somehow, they do not realize that all of their friends feel exactly the same as they do. Once there is safety in numbers — as in the group of girls from the vignette — the process of populating the dance floor is primed, and soon there is no trace of the earlier paralysing hesitancy.

Talking to strangers

This kind of reluctance is not limited to teens, though. Juliana Schroeder, a psychologist at Berkeley University and her colleagues investigated a topic that, for adults — certainly for British adults (the research took place in London) — rivals the awkwardness of being the first one to get up on the dance floor at the school disco. It concerns conversations with strangers. In the paper Hello Stranger? Pleasant conversations are preceded by concerns about starting one, the researchers explore why people on the commute to or from work usually completely ignore each other. One possible reason (established in earlier research) is that people misjudge how pleasant it would be to chat to a stranger.

A scene on a commuter train with everyone keeping to themselves
My mum always told me not to talk to strangers (image: Guvluck/Pexels)

This was confirmed in their first field experiment with nearly 400 participants on London commuter trains. Those in the treatment group (assigned to talk with a stranger) reported having a much more pleasant journey than those who had to sit in solitude, or…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius