Groupthink thrives in the absence of genuine deliberation

What does a dramatic plunge in Marks & Spencer’s share price have in common with America’s shambolic attempt to invade Cuba? What unites the collapse of one of the world’s most prestigious airlines with the failure to predict one of the most infamous attacks in military history?

The answer is groupthink. All of the above, from M&S’s late-’90s lurch to the farrago of the Bay of Pigs, from Swissair’s unforeseen demise to the horror of Pearl Harbour, are widely cited as classic examples of what happens when people reach a consensus without giving due thought to the alternatives.

The term “groupthink” was originally coined in 1952 by William H Whyte, who at the time was a writer for Fortune magazine. Whyte, who would go on specialise in the study of human behaviour in urban environments, described the phenomenon as “an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well”.

Research into the theory began in earnest almost two decades later when Irving Janis, a psychologist at Yale University, investigated the effect of extreme stress on group cohesiveness. Groupthink should have an “invidious connotation”, argued Janis because it arises from “a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments”.

Such a mindset has since been used to explain seemingly unthinking conformity – and the disastrous decisions that can result from it – in a variety of settings, from blue-chip boardrooms to clandestine cults. Even Twitter and other forms of social media have been accused of fostering groupthink by dissuading independent thought and promoting a collective outlook.

A worry for many organisations is that the evidence supporting a general propensity towards groupthink can appear overwhelming. Managers could be forgiven for believing the problem is virtually impossible to avoid and that every decision is doomed to be cursed by closed-mindedness, overconfidence and pressure towards uniformity. Encouragingly, however, new research suggests otherwise.

Shattering the illusion of invulnerability

Groupthink stems from what is known in the field of psychology as “confirmation bias”. We exhibit such a bias when we attach more significance to information that confirms a hypothesis we already favour and less significance to information that contradicts it.

Although it has been the subject of extensive research since the 1960s, this tendency has been observed anecdotally for centuries. Greek historian Thucydides referred to it in his account of the Peloponnesian War when he wrote of people’s “habit to entrust to careless hope what they long for and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy”. In the Novum Organum, his 1620 treatise on inductive reasoning, philosopher, and statesman Francis Bacon summed up the problem as follows: “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion… draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

Almost anyone who has sat through a business meeting will have experienced something that chimes with these remarks. When a group assembles to solve a problem the goal should be a decision of improved quality, but the variety of perspectives necessary to produce such an outcome is routinely nowhere to be found. Driven by an eagerness to conform, the rush to judgment can be both rapid and, with the benefit of hindsight, reckless.

A better understanding of how the manner in which we obtain evidence influences our subsequent weighting of it could help guard against this unfortunate proclivity. Might it be possible to reduce the threat of groupthink by structuring the decision-making process differently?

A recent study offers some hope in this regard. Carried out by economists from the London School of Economics and the University of Nottingham, the research used laboratory experiments to examine how decision-makers respond to consensus-challenging information when it is merely imparted and when it is properly discussed.

Our findings point to the existence of reverse confirmation bias when people share and consider evidence. The subjects who took part in our tests placed much more weight on conflicting evidence when it was deliberated – not because evidence delivered verbally is more persuasive per se but because they were made to realise how little they actually knew. The “illusions of invulnerability”, to borrow one of Janis’s most memorable phrases, often melted away in the heat of authentic debate and dialogue.

To be discussed…

It is important to stress that these are remarkably subtle effects. They underline the age-old axiom that in striving to find answers we frequently succeed only in raising further questions. Precisely how we should interpret such conclusions will undoubtedly require further research. For businesses and their managers, though, the implications are perhaps altogether more straightforward.

Janis posited years ago that a key method of defending against groupthink should be to cast at least one member of a group in the role of devil’s advocate. The benefits of this strategy were further highlighted only recently in a Stanford Graduate School of Business study that recommended every team feature a contrarian who is “constructive and careful in communication” and engenders “healthy conflict”.

Our own research seems to – dare we say it? – confirm as much. Groupthink thrives in the absence of genuine deliberation. Well-made decisions are rooted in openness and the meaningful exchange of views. Ultimately, at its absolute simplest, the lesson is that it is good to talk.

Dr Jeroen Nieboer is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the London School of Economics’ Department of Social Policy. His areas of research include behavioural economics, cooperation, decision-making under risk and group decision-making.