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Why do people in meetings tell you what you already know?

Meetings are a fact of life. No matter how hard we try sometimes, we just can’t seem to shake them. But most of us feel that meetings are generally a waste of time. One problem is that people trying to make decisions in groups spend most of their time telling each other things that everyone already knows. In comparison people are unlikely to bring up new information known only to themselves. The result: poor decisions.

In their studies Titus and Stasser found that a significant amount of time in meetings was spent listening to people telling each other what everyone else already knew. Worryingly, their studies went on to find that the individuals in meetings who actually possessed genuinely new information, that only they knew about, often failed to alert the rest of the group to this new information.

As a result, the decisions made were, at best OK and at worst, pretty poor. Other studies have often shown that meetings that have been arranged with the clear purpose of gaining approval for an action will often end without a decision actually being made.

So what influences meetings like this to occur? And perhaps more importantly, what can be done to influence more productive ones?

Here are three reasons why people repeat information:

Memory. Shared information is likely to be more memorable in the first place, so more likely to be brought up by someone. Also, if more people in a group know a piece of information, whether because it’s memorable or for some other reason, then there is a greater probability that one of them will recall it in the discussion.

Pre-judgements. People make their minds up to varying degrees before they have a group discussion. The information on which they make their pre-judgement is likely to be shared information available to everyone. Then, when the group discussion starts, whether consciously or unconsciously, people tend to only bring up information that supports their pre-judgement. Surprise, surprise, it’s the same things everyone else is bringing up.

Anxiety. Before a meeting people are unsure how important the information they know is, and are also anxious to be seen in a good light by others in the group. Information that emerges during a meeting as shared by the group comes to be viewed as more important and so people repeat it. People are seen as more capable when they talk about shared rather than unshared information (Wittenbaum & Bowman, 2004). To be on the safe side people prefer to stick to repeating things that everyone knows and, bizarrely, others like them better for it.

Are people who are trained to share informaiton any better?

Like all healthcare professionals, doctors are trained in the importance of sharing information; and, as a result, how to promote optimal decisions. This makes good sense.  And, for their patients, it is also good news. Knowing that everyone involved in their care has a clear understanding of their situation and circumstances can do much to reduce anxiety and raise confidence levels. But it turns out that even those professionally trained to share information and pool their respective knowledge can sometimes fall short.
Take by way of an example a study where a number of doctors were shown videos of two specific medical cases (Larson et al, 1998). The doctors in the study were split into small groups to see the videos.  But unbeknown to them, each group watched a slightly different video. Additionally, some doctors were provided with individual information about each of the cases. As a result all the doctors received some relevant information about the two patient scenarios but no one doctor received all the relevant information.

After watching the videos the doctors were asked to discuss the two cases with one of the other groups and come to a consensus about both the diagnosis and the required treatments. Cleverly the researchers made sure that the most accurate diagnosis and treatment decisions could only be made if all the doctors contributed their respective knowledge to the group. What they found though, was that sharing and pooling of information rarely happened to the extent that the most accurate diagnosis could be made. As a result less than optimal decision making occurred leading to poorer decisions. There are two features of this study that are of particular concern. The first concern is quite clearly for the patient. The second concern is the fact that even though doctors are routinely trained to share and pool information often they do not.

How to encourage people to share

Naturally, then, ever since the first experimental demonstration of this phenomenon, the search has been on to find ways to encourage people to share the information that only they know. Here are some of the attributes of groups that do tend to divulge more of that critical unshared information with each other (from Wittenbaum et al., 2004):

  • Groups where members disagree and who display less groupthink are more likely to share unpooled information.
  • When people are told to try and recall relevant information before the meeting, this makes them more likely to mention facts that only they know.
  • Members of a group should be made aware of each other’s expertise, so they know (broadly speaking) what everyone else knows.
  • The longer meetings go on, the more likely that people will recall previously unshared information (unfortunately!).
  • People are more likely to share if they have a higher status in the group. So to encourage lower status members to share, their expertise needs to be specifically acknowledged to the group.

One sure way to become more persuasive is to read Robert Cialdini’s books Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.