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April 4, 2022

The babble hypothesis: quantity vs quality

How to manage bias in life science engagements to ensure every voice is heard.
babble hypothesis

If you were to examine your social circle, you could probably identify a few individuals who tend to dominate conversations, and don’t hold back when sharing their opinions. Alongside this louder, more extroverted faction, you’ll also have friends who take up less space in conversations and are less eager to share their views – but are no less intelligent, engaging or insightful for their quieter personas.

In a social context, these different groups help to bring variety to our lives. But in the more professional confines of an advisory board, speaker bureau, or even an internal team, different personality types can present certain difficulties. How can you ensure that every voice is heard and every opinion considered when some individuals are more reluctant to speak

Examining the babble hypothesis

A recent study by Neil G. MacLaren et al – Testing the babble hypothesis: speaking time predicts leader emergence in small groups – set out to determine whether there was any correlation between how often people speak, and how they’re viewed by their peers.

The crux of the ‘babble hypothesis’ is simple: we pay more attention to the people who talk the most. This theory posits that though we may think people become leaders due to their keen insights and indisputable acumen, we actually tend to promote people based on the quantity of their verbal output – not the quality of what they say. Try as we might, we tend to lend extra credence to the loudest voices. The work of MacLaren and his colleagues shows there’s more to the babble hypothesis than you might think.

“We usually think of leadership as being very content-driven – someone says important things, so we follow them – yet here was pretty consistent evidence that people seemed to attribute leadership to people who ‘babbled,’ or just spoke a lot.” – Neil G. MacLaren

You can probably think of numerous examples from your professional life, your personal life, and of course the political sphere where individuals have attained elevated positions seemingly by adopting the loudest, brashest personalities. Fascinatingly, Maclaren’s research seems to bear this out.

“The evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders.” – Neil G. MacLaren

Babble and bias

The work of MacLaren et al shows that, as a society, we tend to provide a bigger platform for those with the loudest voices. These findings have implications for global politics, for the workplace, and for our social lives – and it’s worth examining the impact this phenomenon could be having on life science, too.

When you run a virtual or in-person meeting – whether it’s an advisory group, a steering committee, a sounding board, or a clinical trial – it’s crucial that you capture the full spectrum of thoughts and opinions from every advisor if your insights are to be fully representative. But not everyone is a confident public speaker, and some people would rather stay quiet than share their opinions. If only a small percentage of advisors are fully contributing to your session, you’d have to expect an element of bias in your session results.

And it’s not just personality types that determine whether people hold their tongues or not. Hierarchy influence is huge in many life science organizations, where seniority and experience often hold significant cachet. Advisors who might have important insights to share can be reluctant to speak in the presence of more senior colleagues.

“Hierarchical leadership can have detrimental effects on health care outcomes, and alternatives must be explored.” – National Center for Biotechnology Information

There are countless other factors at play when it comes to advisor contributions, too. If you’re convening an international panel, the language barrier can be an issue. There are sensitivities that can prevent people from speaking up – or from sharing their candid, unvarnished views. In a real-time session, you might simply run out of time before you hear what every individual has to say.

Making every voice heard

A virtual engagement platform can help ensure that every advisor has their say, providing you with the insights you need to meet your session objectives. Connecting asynchronously allows you to double-blind your sessions, so advisors and responses can be completely anonymized. This eliminates the ‘babble’ effect, prevents hierarchy influence, and allows advisors to openly discuss sensitive topics with complete confidentiality. In-platform translation functionality allows advisors to engage in their own language, so no one is left out of the discussion. And by running an over-time session, you’re allowing participants to respond to their own schedules, wherever they are in the world – ensuring everyone has the opportunity to make their voice heard.

Every session you run should be representative of the range of advisors involved – not only to ensure you capture the full range of insights on offer but to open up the floor to a diverse range of voices rather than the same handful of extroverted speakers.

Curious about the impact of hearing every voice? Read our post about increased diversity in clinical trials.

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