Whether you are on a Zoom call debating a new strategy, in the office making hiring decisions, or at home making dinner plans, conversation is integral to interpersonal interaction and decision-making. And despite a flurry of recent research investigating conversational dynamics, we still know relatively little about how conversations unfold, how they affect those involved, and how people can be more or less effective in promoting consensus in their interactions.
To explore these issues, I collaborated with a team of social neuroscientists and together, we designed a study to explore the role of conversation in achieving group consensus and how conversational dynamics varied as a function of who is participating. In the study, we showed participants a series of clips from an unfamiliar movie while we measured neural activity in their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The clips were, by design, ambiguous in their meaning and, after watching them, we divided people into groups of five and asked each group to discuss what they saw in the movie clips and to reach consensus about the narrative. After reaching their narrative consensus, we sent people back to the brain scanner to watch the same clips again, as well as additional clips from the same movie.
The results were fascinating. First, we found that conversation served not only to align people’s narratives, but also to align the neural activity in their brains. And this increased alignment applied not only to the clips that they discussed together, but also to the new, previously unseen clips. That is, individuals applied their group’s narrative to the new movie clip they watched. Second, and more importantly, we found that there was significant variation between groups in how they reached alignment. In groups that reached consensus through more equal participation and conversational turn-taking, their neural alignment was higher. In contrast, groups in which one person dominated the conversation came away less strongly aligned. It seems our brains don’t enjoy getting bulldozed any more than our conscious selves do!
Finally, we found that people who occupy central positions in the real-world social network play a surprising and important role in achieving strong alignment. First, behaviorally, they engage others in the conversation, promoting more balanced participation. Second, neurally, they are more adaptable, building consensus by both pulling others together and by allowing themselves to be influenced toward the emerging group consensus.
Of course, we can’t know whether this cognitive flexibility is what led them to occupy their central network positions in the first place or whether being central in their network afforded them the ability to be flexible. Yet, in either case, it seems that those who are central in the network play an especially important role in promoting conversational consensus among groups.
Either way, the upshot is that groups are better able to achieve consensus when conversational participation is evenly balanced — and having group members who are highly central in the informal social network of the organization may be instrumental in achieving that balance.