Speaking Up Is Hard to Do: Researchers Explain Why
Robert Murphy, an online marketing representative in San Francisco, was invited to a business meeting with his boss and six colleagues a few weeks ago. He had attended previous meetings on the subject, and he prepared with additional research. He brought a thick sheaf of notes and contracts with him to the conference room.
So what did he contribute to the discussion? Absolutely nothing.
“I just sat there like a lump, fixated on the fact that I was quiet,” says Mr. Murphy, 31 years old.
Have you ever clammed up at a party or found yourself tongue-tied at a meeting for fear of saying something stupid—even though you consider yourself at least as smart as anyone else in the room?
Research from scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute offers an explanation of why many people become, in effect, less intelligent in small group settings.
If we think others in a group are smarter, we may become dumber, temporarily losing both our problem-solving ability and what the researchers call our “expression of IQ.”
The clamming-up phenomenon seems to be more common in women and in people with higher IQs, according to the report, published in January in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
The Virginia Tech scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the brain processes information about social status in a small group and how people’s perception of their status affects their cognitive performance.
The researchers administered a standard intelligence test to 70 individuals and divided them into 14 groups of five. Then the groups repeated 92 test questions dealing with sequences and spatial problems.
Two subjects from each group answered the questions while having fMRI scans. After each question, the subjects saw how they ranked within the group and whether their ranking went up, down or stayed the same relative to the group.
Initially, all the brain scans showed spikes in activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers fear and processes emotion. But after answering 10 or so questions, 13 subjects recovered and ended up with scores that were closer to their initial performance. Meanwhile, 14 didn’t recover.
As they saw their rankings go down, they seemed to panic, and they answered more questions incorrectly. (One scanned individual didn’t complete the questions and so was excluded.)
“It was like the ‘Survivor’ show,” says Read Montague, leader of the study, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and professor of neuroscience at University College London.
“Some people stayed stressed and freaked out the whole time, and some people habituated relatively quickly and started solving small problems,” Dr. Montague said.
The researchers reported that 11 of the 14 “low performers” were female; 10 of the 13 “high performers” were men.
The low-performers were more attuned to group social dynamics, subconsciously worrying about their performance and evaluating themselves in relation to others, the researchers speculate.
Women often are more attentive to what others may be feeling or thinking, a sensitivity that likely has an evolutionary origin, Dr. Montague says.
“For the group to provide you with any extra stability or protection, you had to be sensitive to how the group was doing.”
Help For the Tongue-Tied
Do you often find it difficult to speak up in a small group? Here are some ways to cope:
- Pair up with a peacock. Join with someone who is more outgoing than you, or has a higher position within the group. In a social situation, this person can introduce you and keep talk flowing, or bring up your points in a business meeting and then toss you an opening into the conversation. ‘You find an avenue where you are being pulled in,’ says Michael Woodward, a New York organizational psychologist.
- Talk to the person running the meeting beforehand. Mention the points you want to discuss and ask for an opportunity to bring them up. Explain why you are asking.
- Prepare. In a business meeting, know what you want to say, practice your delivery and bring notes. This will help prevent you from being distracted by what others are saying and wondering how you should respond. ‘Any good politician knows his talking points,’ Dr. Woodward says.
- Take a break. If you are in a situation that is making you anxious or draining your mental energy, get some water or take a walk. Think of this as resetting your brain, just as you’d turn your computer off to reset it if it were frozen.
- Realize others in the room likely feel the same way. And remember: The people who froze the most in the Virginia Tech study were actually the smartest.
Alissa Fox, a dermatologist from Flemington, N.J., says meetings with other doctors aren’t a problem, but she is sometimes struck silent at neighborhood barbecues and charity committee meetings.
“You get your cues right away,” says Dr. Fox, 57. “I will make comments about things, but it seems that no one hears me or no one agrees with me. And then I clam up.”
Two primary factors influence how we behave in a group: personality and position, says Michael Woodward, an organizational psychologist in New York and author of “The You Plan: A Five-Step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy.”
If you are quiet in a group setting, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are shy, but it does mean you might be an introvert.
Introverts prefer to collect their thoughts before speaking and can be overwhelmed in a group, especially of extraverts, who tend to “think out loud” and process information by speaking.
But extraverts also may choke in group settings. Mr. Murphy, the online marketing representative, says he is typically confident and talkative in a group situation. “If I am comfortable in a setting, I can’t get my mouth to shut up,” he says.
That can change if the boss is present or he feels others are more successful. He recalls feeling flummoxed at dinner with his wife and her graduate-school friends. In these situations, he says he starts to “overthink.” And then his brain shuts down like a frozen computer.
“Thinking about what I am not saying takes up all the space in my mind that I could use to think about what to say,” Mr. Murphy says.