Groupthink is a term coined by sociologist and author William H Whyte in an article for Fortune Magazine that has come to be well-used and well-known. Perhaps the best explanation of it was given by psychologist Irving Janis, who studied groupthink in the context of political decision-making by the US administration from the 1940s to the 1960s:
“A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”
Groupthink occurs when we set aside our individual insights in a desire to conform with the ideas of the group. When we want to introduce change, or estimate risk, an inability to access all points of view is clearly dangerous.
Group think occurs when decisions are based on “what we all know” – members are inhibited from challenging the consensus and relevant information, ideas, challenges are not fully introduced. Here are six ways to prevent Groupthink
- appoint a devil’s advocate
- encourage everyone to be a critical evaluator
- do not have the leader state a preference up front
- set up independent groups or divide into subgroups
- invite others into the group to bring fresh ideas
- gather anonymous feedback via a suggestion box or an online forum
So far, so familiar …
I imagine this is a familiar concept to many of my readers. For an extreme form of this, you might like to look up a description of the Abilene Paradox.
Groupthink can get out of hand. Not only do group members seek to conform with one another, but as some members shift their point of view, the centre of gravity of the group’s thinking will move. In seeking to conform with this, other group members shift their perspective, and the result of this cascade of small changes is a polarisation of the group, and a result that is known as “risky shift.”
Therefore, groups can endorse higher risk decisions than any of the individuals would – perhaps due to the degree of confidence resulting in group members agreeing to decisions that they would not make as individuals. This process was first reported by James Stoner in 1961.
First Speaker Effect
People with more extreme positions are more likely than others to have clear arguments supporting their positions and are also most likely to voice them. The order in which people speak will affect the course of a discussion. Earlier comments are more influential in forming opinions and also creating the framework for the discussion.
The “so what?”
Risky shift is the difference between the average risk taken by individuals and the risk taken by the group. This can generate either a risky shift or, equally, a cautious shift.