Group flow

I was telling a friend about the Buffy singalong today and mentioned that one of the reasons it was so enjoyable was because everybody in the theater was a Buffy fanatic, or at least Buffy-fanatic-friendly. Because the show had sold out earlier in the week, only the fanatics had tickets. And that created a really positive vibe that fed on itself. I mentioned in the post that I think I enjoyed watching the warmup episode far more because I was surrounded by other people enjoying it.

This got me thinking this evening about other examples. I watched The Matrix on opening night in a sold-out theater, and it blew my mind. I watched the Blair Witch Project at a midnight showing on its opening night in limited release, and it was a far more compelling experience than when I saw it a month later in a multiplex. The Steve Reich concerts were spine-tingling. It happens when watching sports where the buzz is truly infectious – I even found myself momentarily rooting for the Yankees once this summer. Even a non-interactive experience like watching a movie or concert or a game is profoundly different with a sympathetic audience.

But why? If I enjoy something, why should it matter whether other people around me do as well? My theory of the evening is that it has to do with flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (which I’ve never read, so the following discussion may be inaccurate), where the general idea is that we’re happiest when we can reach a state of flow, where there is nothing impeding our progress in our task. Books like Peopleware emphasize the importance of giving people good tools to do their job, as that keeps them in the state of flow. A bad tool distracts people, keeps them from concentrating on their task, and breaks their attention out of the flow.

I think that a similar thing happens in groups of people. Books like The Society of Mind or Cognition in the Wild suggest that our minds act like groups of people, so perhaps groups of people may work like minds in this instance. When people are getting excited about something, that excitement feeds on itself, as if the whole group is getting into a state of flow (I’ve covered this in the context of conversations). But all it takes is one person to be negative to destroy the flow, and force the momentum to start over. The colloquial term is “party pooper”. It may seem as if they’re just one person, but by interfering with the network and multiplier effects of group enthusiasm, they can have a disproportionate negative effect.

To use pseudo-math for a second, if you have four people, and they’re all psyched about something, and they feed on each other’s excitement, the end result of excitement is probably exponential – it’s more like sixteen (four squared) units of excitement rather than four. If one person is negative, then you have either two or three units of excitement, depending on whether the negativity is a actively negative (a -1) or indifferent (a 0). Flipping the effect of one person doesn’t just reduce the excitement by one, it reduces it by thirteen! Obviously, the numbers are made up, but it illustrates the idea that I’m trying to get across.

I think this idea also applies in business. One bad apple in a company, especially in a startup, is a disaster. One of the priorities listed in Good to Great is to get the right people on the bus. Get the wrong people out of there. And I think one of the reasons that is so important is because of these multiplier effects. The wrong people don’t just drag down their own performance, they destroy everybody else’s productivity and enthusiasm. But when everybody is on the same page, and they’re excited and they’re psyched, amazing things can happen.

How do we get people into that state? Still working on that one. I’ve got a post on management somewhere in the pipeline that may discuss this. I’m pretty pleased with extracting all of this from the Buffy singalong, though.

P.S. Missed last night’s post because of class and homework. Oh well. The daily posting was more of a guideline. Maybe I’ll try to double post this weekend to “catch up”.

P.P.S. It’s only halfway through the month and I’ve already equalled my typical monthly output of posts. Goals help! Of course, I may be overwhelming my poor readers with verbiage, but they can always skip a post or three.

4 thoughts on “Group flow

  1. Hey Perlick. While I have absolutely no qualifications to speak of in this area, your comments about “groups of people may work like minds” and the multiplying effect of having people in the same mind-state reminded me of something I read recently, stating that parts of the human brain work to mimic the brains of others around us — and this may be where empathy comes from. So those around you do affect the state of your mind, quite literally. It may be (although I really don’t know) that a very large number of people in the same mind-state has a very large effect on an individual’s mind-state. Interesting stuff!

  2. Oh, please. Like I have any qualifications either.

    Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s probably tied into mirror neurons somehow. Hrm. This is where I wish I were an expert. Or at least knew an expert. Anybody know a neuroscientist?

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