Opinion: Group-think aka the group-thinking trap: what it means and how to avoid it

Dr Colin Fisher
Dr Colin Fisher

Even the smartest of groups can make the mistake of thinking collectively, which can often lead to dubious decisions being made, says Dr Colin Fisher (UCL School of Management).

Former UK government adviser  Dominic Cummings  recently stirred controversy by calling  the government’s poor response  to the COVID-19 crisis in the UK a "classic example of  group-think  ."

He said the more people criticized the government’s plans, the more people within the government would argue that others failed to understand.

He added that, if the public and the research community were given the opportunity from the outset to dissect the UK government’s COVID-19 policy, "we would have known at least six weeks in advance that there were better alternative plans".

While we cannot know for sure the veracity of this critique, it raises important questions about the dynamics of decision making in groups. What is  group-think  and how can we avoid it according to research?

Group-think  is  a popular term  that describes how a group of actually intelligent people can make wrong decisions. The point is that groups create psychological pressure on individuals to conform to the views of leaders and other members.

Popular examples of group-think  are the  United States’  decision  to invade Cuba in 1961  , as well as Coca-Cola’s decision to launch a "  New Coke  " product in 1985.

In these two examples, as well as many other popular examples, a group failed to make the right choice even though they had all the information they needed. Members fail to provide alternative criticism and information that can help their group avoid embarrassing or tragic decisions.

How can smart people come together and come to seemingly dubious conclusions?

There are three main reasons  groups can create pressure  that can then lead to wrong decisions.

First, all humans want to feel a sense of belonging to one another - evolution is like pushing our brains to find belonging to a group. In any group situation, consciously or not, we always want to feel accepted and valued by other members. One way to gain acceptance and respect is to find common ground with others.

However, when all members do this, the group discussion becomes biased and leads to common ground and agreement. Unfortunately, this eliminates potential differences and disagreements.

For example, if a group member says they like a certain TV show, other members who also like it are more likely to speak up. Those who haven’t seen it or don’t like it are more likely to remain silent. This is not to say that disagreements never occur, just that they may rarely occur in group discussions.

When group discussions go with this dynamic - members express more agreement than disapproval - those with differing opinions begin to believe that their views are inconsistent with the majority. This makes them more likely to withhold information or views that may be rejected by other members.

Second, as the English saying goes, "  if you want to get along, go along  " ("  if you want to get along, go along  ").

While disagreements are healthy in a group - and, indeed, the essence of group decision making - healthy disagreements often lead to  personal  conflict  and hurt the feelings of others. This risk, however small, makes those who disagree too often hold back their opinion.

This pressure is even stronger when group members in high positions - such as formal leaders or those with status that are respected by others - then express their opinions.

In this situation, there are invisible boundaries that prevent us from speaking up or expressing our disapproval to other members. This feeling is very difficult to overcome, especially if we realize that with that opinion, we will be putting ourselves at odds with a leader.

Third, we subconsciously  adjust our preferences  to match what we perceive to be the majority view. In other words, when we ourselves don’t have a clear opinion about something, we just adopt the views of other members - this often happens, without us even realizing it.

After we adopt that preference, it then becomes a filter for all the information we receive. We easily remember information that fits our own preferences, but tend to forget information  that doesn’t match our preferences  .

That way, a member expressing his agreement, indirectly creates a vicious circle that continuously encourages group agreement.

The recipe  for avoiding  group-think  is to focus on options and information first, and hold back on any personal decisions or views.

After determining the goals, the group should consider as many options as possible. All members should be asked for all relevant information about all of these options - even if the information conflicts with the preferences of other members. After a thorough and systematic surgical process, only then can members begin discussing their options or suggesting one option over another.

Leaders also have an important role in avoiding group thinking.

Research has shown  that leaders who direct the decision-making process, but do not share their own preferences or encourage the selection of a particular option, can help groups avoid  group-think  while making better decisions. Leaders who push for certain choices, especially early on, tend to mislead their group and are more prone to fall into the  group-think  trap .

In avoiding the trap of group thinking, the leader should act as a detective, asking questions and gathering all the facts. Leading with the mindset of wanting to win debates or encouraging personal preference only makes the group much more susceptible to  group-  thinking .

Regardless of how governments have made decisions in the past, ideally they should ensure that all decision-making bodies can follow the suggestions above. Because even the smartest and best-intentioned groups are vulnerable to the psychological trap of  group-think .

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 5th January 2022.