Character  &  Context

Can Lego cars reveal the key to effective communication?

Image of older man and woman and two children playing with toys

By Katharine Greenaway

Miscommunication is often a matter of minor misunderstandings. In 1999 the $125 million Mars orbiter was destroyed entering the planet’s atmosphere because one spacecraft team made calculations in imperial measurements while another used metric. Thirteen years earlier, the Space Shuttle Challenger famously exploded 73 seconds into its flight due to a tragic failure of communication between different departments at NASA. These examples are extreme, but the bottom line is that miscommunication costs time, money, and sometimes lives.

At what point does communication break down? It could be a matter of people sending bad messages–forgetting to pass on crucial information or assuming a greater level of knowledge in an audience than actually exists. Alternatively, it could arise from the way messages are received and interpreted. That is, people may not put enough effort into sending a clear message, or enough effort into clearly understanding a message that has been sent. In this way, error can be introduced both by message senders and by message recipients.

It was this second process that we were interested in unpacking in two recent experiments (Greenaway, Wright, Willingham, Reynolds, & Haslam, 2015). The experiments focused on the role that shared group membership plays in determining whether communication succeeds or fails.

We gave two sets of participants identical instructions for completing a relatively basic Lego model—a 44-piece car. The important difference was that one set of participants believed that the instructions came from a person who shared the same processing style as themselves (an ‘ingroup’ member) while the other set of participants believed the instructions had come from a person with a different processing style (an ‘outgroup’ member). In reality, of course, everyone received exactly the same instructions.

In both experiments we found that if people received instructions that were said to be from an ingroup member they perceived those instructions to be better than did people who were told the instructions were created by an outgroup member. That’s interesting, but did it have any consequences for how they interpreted the instructions?

Yes it did. Strikingly, we found that people actually made better models when they received instructions from an ingroup rather than an outgroup member. Indeed, on average, people given ingroup instructions placed on average around four more Lego pieces in their correct position. That might not seem like much, but it’s actually the difference between a car with and without wheels.

This might seem like a depressing conclusion–as though we will inevitably misunderstand and misrepresent information we receive from those in different groups to ourselves. But in our second experiment we found that this is not always the case. In this experiment people still thought they were receiving instructions from an ingroup or an outgroup member, but for half the participants we reminded them that they had something else in common–they all went to the same university. Among people who were made aware of this superordinate group membership, the difference in model quality between ingroup and outgroup instructions disappeared. Here, then, people had redefined the boundaries of shared group membership; people who had once been perceived as ‘out’ were now perceived as ‘in’.

At one level, these results might seem rather remote from instances of “real world” miscommunication. Nevertheless, the group-based processes explored in this research can have important consequences for the way in which people understand and relate to one another in a range of applied contexts. For example, forthcoming research by researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia shows that doctors understand patient medical charts better when they are written by doctors from their own specialty group. Issues of intergroup prejudice and conflict can also be the outcome of an inability to communicate well with people from a different group.

At the same time, our research suggests that negative outcomes are far from an inevitable consequence of communication across intergroup divides. Indeed, it appears that effective communication can be facilitated when we focus not simply on what makes us different from others but also on what we have in common.

Katharine Greenaway is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. She is a Global Scholar alumna with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Social Interactions, Identity, and Well-being program. Her research examines the motivational consequences of shared identity and the communicative functions of emotion expression. More information about Katie’s work can be found at



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