Groupthink, Abilene and Risky Shift


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.

Preventing Groupthink

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.

Balance Risky Shift

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.


2 thoughts on “Groupthink, Abilene and Risky Shift

  1. Samad Aidane


    Group-think is a very interesting phenomenon we see in the roject management community. One instance that I have been following is how we tend to refer to the Chaos Report when citing evidence of high rate of failure in technology projects.

    I wrote a blog post called: “Let’s say “No” to groupthink and stop quoting the Chaos Report”

    Here is the link:

    This has led to an interview with researchers from University of Amsterdam who worked on a study to test validity of the Chaos report findings. It also led to interesting conversation in comments section of the blog post.

    Here is the link:

    The “Chaos Report” Myth Busters

    Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Neuroscience of Risky Shift | Shift Happens!

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