I am a physicist and the other day, a friend of mine pointed out something that I had never noted explicitly before. This is an empirical observation, but it seems true to me, and it may raise a lot of questions about the current organization of research. I wonder whether this has already been documented and studied, either from the sociological or psychological points of view.

The observation is that fundamental discussions on physics (i.e. implying non-standard physics and epistemology) often occur in discussions involving at most 2 or 3 good friends (all being physicists). The more people you involve (5 or 6 good friends), the harder it is to speak about these subjects. It is not "explicit"; it is just a personal feeling that a kind of "social pressure" appears and tends to bring the discussion closer to "standard discussion subjects". And it seems to occur even if all possible subgroups of 2 or 3 people among the global group of 5 or 6 people are OK with having fundamental discussions on physics when they are isolated from each other.

My questions are:

  • Is this a well-known effect? (Any links to studies?)
  • What is its origin?
  • How to avoid it?
  • $\begingroup$ I am a social and personality psychologist, and can definitely relate, but don't know of any research on this. Research may exist though, and I'd love to know more about it too. Welcome to CogSci BTW! $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2014 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ I love this question. I've been thinking about the same thing lately (how to get the best discussions out of a large, diverse group of students) and my intuition is also that a small group of people on a similar level works best. $\endgroup$
    – Ana
    Jun 2, 2014 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Ana : I was having this intuition too... but in the scenario described in the question, all people in the group are physicists with the same background, they are friends, and they can have passionate profound discussions naturally when they are in very small groups (2 or 3). But when they are in larger group, I do not know why, but it seems harder to have these kinds of discussions. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Jun 2, 2014 at 3:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Could you provide a little more info about the nature and goals of the conversations? After reading, I was unclear whether you're referring to a group of friends who are working on a formal research project together, or if you're painting a scenario of friends casually discussing their trade. The distinction might affect the outcome. $\endgroup$
    – Ana
    Jun 2, 2014 at 21:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a little broad. There is a limit on Working Memory (the brain's processing ability) which worsens in the presence of stress, but I don't think this is what you're talking about. It sounds rather that you're asking about social inhibition that occurs within groups with greater rather than lesser numbers of people. If you could clarify which you believe is going on, maybe an answer can be posted. $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2014 at 5:11

2 Answers 2


It seems to be related to a kind of "Peer pressure".

This is due the change of the context. A profound discussion is regarded as confidential talk and you will notice that the voice volume is lower than a discussion with many people.

But why is a profound discussion regarded as confidential?

Maybe because you could touch scientific taboos. Every time you touch the foundation of a world view you will confront all participants with their fears. The world view represents a aspect of security. Exposing lacks in a world view will expose the fears of them too. Then it's much more difficult to find a common ground for a solution. Not everybody is willed to accept the implication of a certain insight.

A discussion with more people will tend to go towards superficial topics, cars, home, family, weather and so on.

But it depends on who initiate the talk and if this person is keen enough to enforce this topic. And I think that Keegan is right, sometimes we just want to be polite and we want the discussion to be more open ... maybe more open to the "general context" of the situation itself.


As I see the issue in question is this:

In a larger group of cohorts the topic of conversation becomes less than profound due to a sense of pressure to remain within an accepted norm.

One could definitely say that this is a "well known effect" simply because we all experience it at some point in our lives.

This closely resembles the infamous Bystander Effect, where the size of the group directly impacts the likelihood an individual will take action. Whatever the reasons may be for people in academia to succumb to social peer pressures is anyone's guess :) and I am fairly certain many of you reading this question can answer this, albeit to yourselves but for more insight as to why this might happen - Stanley Milgram's work might shine some light on this. A good summation of his work is described here, on the Psychology in Action site.

A specific answer to the origin of this really depends on your school of taught (not thought :)). Ultimately, this discussion would boil down to nature or nurture, do we shape our environment or does it shape us?

Ultimately, to avoid it, simply be the bold one to bring up profound topics of conversation with the purpose of enriching those around you. This will prove a wondrous thing for those 2 to 3 friends with whom you have these conversations. For the rest, well, does it really matter - you can bring a horse to water, but you ...we all know this one :).

Keep in mind that profound conversation will lead to profound results, which is important in your field, perhaps more than any other - Physics define our reality!


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