Post No.: 0392
The wisdom of a diverse crowd usually leads to better solutions in certain contexts (check out Post No.: 0090). But when that diversity is absent or when people just mindlessly follow each other or merely build upon each other’s ideas – ‘groupthink’ might occur.
Decision-making suffers when a tight-knit group becomes insulated from dissenting viewpoints, especially when the group’s leader firmly advocates a particular course of action.
Groupthink is triggered by a directive leadership style in high-status groups where the group members are viewed as powerful and wise thus any objections against them are likely to be kept to oneself and dissent becomes stifled. Groupthink also occurs when there’s intense ingroup cohesion, similarity of ideology, insulation from criticism, where there’s insecure group member self-esteem, when there’s a sense of crisis, and when the pressure for unanimity overrides the motivation to adopt rational decision-making procedures. High stress allied with a perceived low degree of hope of finding a better alternative solution may also exacerbate groupthink.
An example situation is when old, white and rich males in a political party, intelligence agency or other organisation think that old, white and rich males know best, and so they only hire and surround themselves with other old, white and rich males, which results in a low diversity of views and ideas, and greater groupthink.
When people echo the same beliefs as us, it stimulates the brain’s pleasure centres. It feels good to think that we’re right, as determined by the (fallible) heuristic of ‘those around me believe in the same thing too so it surely must be right and I’m not uniquely stupid’. It conversely feels unpleasant to think that we’re wrong. These two feelings naturally result in a homophily, or ‘similar seeks similar’, and drive us towards our own groupthink and echo chamber effects because we want to feel that pleasure from feeling smart and avoid that pain from feeling stupid.
But even if millions of people, or more than half of the world’s current population, believe in something and spread that something, it doesn’t necessarily make that something true, accurate, right or fair. So although working in a team improves morale and brings many other benefits – close-knit and particularly isolated groups with a directive leader can pay a price (or pass a price onto others) when it comes to making decisions, especially when seeking concurrence dominates over the evaluation of alternative ideas or courses of action. We must always welcome diversity, debate and dissent.
To combat groupthink – a group must have a complete survey of the alternatives (including contrary information and alternative possibilities), have a complete survey of its objectives, examine the risks of its preferred choices, search for quality information and evidence, seek for and process information that is not at hand as well as information that is, have methodical procedures for search and appraisal, reappraise the alternatives continually, and work out contingency plans.
An open leadership also helps to avoid groupthink, as well as being impartial/not endorsing any position (if possible). Encouraging critical evaluation and assigning a fuzzy ‘devil’s advocate’, or welcoming critiques or input from genuine dissenters and outside experts, also helps; as will occasionally subdividing the group before reuniting everyone to air their differences, and implementing a ‘second chance’ meeting to air any lingering doubts. All this may mean group decisions will take longer but it’ll increase the chances of making a better decision. (Democracies are inherently bureaucratic and procedural because it takes time and effort to organise a poll and count the votes, but in most cases it’s better than an authoritarian body deciding everything.) Playing ‘devil’s advocate’, or arguing against one’s own side’s case, is a crucial skill to practise in the scientific and legal professions. However, it’s important to note that being aggressively brusque, obtuse or antagonistic isn’t the same thing! Woof.
Another technique to avoid groupthink is to get the lowest ranking members of a group to speak first, then the next members up, and so forth to the highest – this means that employees never have to contradict their bosses and a wide range of opinions can be solicited. De-correlate errors by obtaining separate and independent assessments before coming together to enter into a group discussion – more information can be elicited from a group this way too. It’s better to get people to think of ideas on their own first and then later pool together their ideas, than get people into a group to brainstorm together from the start. Everyone could then each work on the shortlisted ideas independently, then once more get back together the next day to refine these ideas, and so forth as required.
Many hands can make light work, but can also defer and diminish the efforts and responsibilities of the individuals within a group if they’re not individually evaluated for their inputs yet they’ll all receive the same payoff in the end regardless – this is called ‘social loafing’ or ‘free-riding’. Increasing ‘evaluation apprehension’ i.e. the fear of being individually assessed (e.g. recording the performances of each individual player in an ice hockey match) is a possible solution. However, evaluation anxiety can sometimes reduce creativity and performance itself. So more intrinsic factors like tasks that are personally appealing, challenging or involving, and keeping teams small, may be better to increase everyone’s individual efforts. Scenarios where the members expect to work together again (as opposed to a one-off interaction), if the members are friends or feel identifiable (rather than anonymous) and/or feel indispensable to their group, will serve to increase the efforts from each individual on team projects too.
In short, getting people together in a group to share and discuss their ideas from the outset is actually an ineffective way to get the most ideas out of them in total, unless there’s a deliberate mechanism to extract the ideas of every single person. This is because some people are shy or quiet, some might want to avoid conflict, some are social loafers, or there’s a peer pressure to conform with the rest of the group.
A group that doesn’t coordinate will be inefficient, yet, in some scenarios, if they do coordinate then they might risk heading in the wrong direction or in a direction that none of them even individually really wanted – due to the result of each member mistakenly believing that their own preferences are probably opposed to the rest of the group’s and therefore no one raises any objections towards the group for the fear of ‘rocking the boat’, displeasing others or saying things people don’t want to hear! For example, four fluffy friends are bored, so one suggests playing a board game that needs four players to play, thinking that this is what the others might want to do rather than because he/she really wants to play it, and the other three reluctantly agree to play in order to ‘not spoil the game for the others’. Then as the game takes ages to set up, cue lots of, “I didn’t really want to play. I thought you wanted to play?” from everyone(!)
To counter this, people must speak their minds and own up to their own beliefs without attributing their beliefs and feelings to others. People must also confront the group not just on new matters but also on what the group has already silently or tacitly agreed upon and assumed. Consider and weigh the risks of inaction with the risks of taking action. In the workplace, an anonymous suggestions box may help get people’s true feelings out.
This shows us that conflicts aren’t always the reason why group dynamics can produce problems – paradoxically, problems can also occur when the entire group appears to exhibit total agreement. There may be ‘action anxiety’ (a hesitancy in acting) hence we fail to ultimately act and/or we come up with negative fantasies where we imagine disasters will occur if we do what we think we should do (e.g. losing our job if we contradict the boss, or fearing being ostracised if we don’t follow the group).
Citizens living under a brutal regime may seem compliant and even supportive of the regime, but most of them may be behaving in fear of reprisals if they ever appear rebellious against the regime. Plus when each citizen sees each fellow citizen as appearing outwardly complaint (due to the fear), they might believe that their personal disgust regarding the situation is the minority view, hence reinforcing their self-preservation strategy to stay quiet and externally portray compliance themselves; which in turn reinforces others to believe and act the same – never for all of them to find out that the majority view is actually disgust for the brutal regime. It sometimes just needs enough extremely brave people to speak their minds to start a revolution (carefully of course, and weighing out the costs and having, before any uprising begins, an immediate and workable plan to replace the regime with something better rather than just creating a power vacuum, which might become violently contested while the country is rudderless and in disarray).
Overall, we need to welcome and listen to dissenting voices now and again, which can be a problem in the corporate environment of ‘yes men/women’. Employers hire candidates who think somewhat alike because they’re thinking about who will fit in, and employees don’t want to get fired so seldom challenge their bosses. We do need people who’ll fit in with others and follow a company’s culture on the one paw, yet we also need alternative thinkers and people who’ll disrupt the status quo to enhance creativity and to also act as checks and balances too (e.g. to challenge the ingrained sexist culture of a company).
Even when opposing sides of a political divide understand that division is breaking their country apart, the bias is always thinking that it’s the other side that must compromise rather than one’s own side (or usually both). Listening to the other side may be seen as being disloyal to one’s own side, or questioning one’s own side may be seen as a weakness and giving ground to the opposition. This is why it’s even more important to understand that there is a bigger ‘us and them’ rather than a small ‘us versus them’. We may find that the sides disagree less than they and we think – the gap isn’t as wide as the sides misperceive. People not listening to the other sides enough fuels this misperception. Some highly-educated people may actually have smaller and less diverse circles of friends than less-educated people and, for this reason, may misunderstand those not included in their circles.
Many people will also do together what they would never do alone. Warning signs include when a group or mob overestimates its own ‘might makes right’ because of the illusion of invulnerability, they hold an unquestioned belief in their own group’s morality, and they become close-minded if isolated from outside views and end up spending more time rationalising their existing views than questioning them. They hold stereotyped (usually less favourable) views of outsiders, and the members suffer from the pressure to conform and to self-censor or disregard any disagreements for the sake of maintaining their own ingroup cohesion and to not become individually ostracised (or there may be direct penalties for dissention); which all creates an illusion of unanimity, which in turn self-reinforces the groupthink. They may also use sarcasm and mockery rather than logic and cogent arguments to rebuff dissenters, and some members may act in ways to ‘protect’ the group from information that would call into question their beliefs (‘mindguards’).
Woof. When things do go wrong as a result of groupthink – pointing fingers at particular individuals or even just the team leaders is generally incorrect because it perpetuates the illusion that conflict was the problem when the problem was actually that everyone was in unanimous agreement, hence everyone within a group is more-or-less to blame when there’s groupthink.