In his sour parliamentary testimony last week, Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to the Prime Minister, blamed many different people and things for the UK’s failure to tackle Covid-19 – including the ‘thought of group “.
Group thinking is unlikely to defend itself. He already has a terrible reputation, not helped by his Orwellian ring, and the term is used so often that I’m starting to worry that we’re having group thought over group thought.
So let’s take a step back. Groupthink was made famous in a 1972 book by a psychologist Irving Janis. He was fascinated by the Bay of Pigs Fiasco in 1961, in which a group of perfectly intelligent people in the administration of John F Kennedy made a series of perfectly ridiculous decisions in support of a botched coup d’état in Cuba. How did it go ? How can groups of smart people do such stupid things?
An illuminating metaphor of Scott Page, author of The difference, a book on the power of diversity, is the Cognitive Toolkit. A good toolbox isn’t the same as a toolbox full of good tools – two dozen premium hammers won’t do the job. Instead, what is needed is variety: a hammer, pliers, saw, choice of screwdriver and more.
This is pretty obvious and, in principle, it should be obvious for decision making too: a group needs a range of ideas, skills, experience and perspectives. Yet when you put three hammers on a hiring board, they’re likely to hire another hammer. This “homophilia” – spending time with people like us – is the original sin of group decision making, and there is no mystery as to how it happens.
But things are getting worse. A problem, studied by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie in their book Wiseris that groups intensify existing biases. One study looked at group discussions on then-controversial topics (climate change, same-sex marriage, affirmative action) by groups in Boulder, Colorado, on the left, and Colorado Springs, on the right.
Each group contained six individuals with a range of views, but after discussing these views with each other, the Boulder groups suddenly regrouped to the left and the Colorado Springs Groups similarly grouped to the right, becoming both more extreme and more uniform within the group. In some cases, the emerging point of view of the group was more extreme than the earlier point of view of a single member.
One of the reasons for this is that when surrounded by fellow travelers, people have become more confident in their own opinions. They felt reassured by the support of others.
During this time, people with opposing views tended to remain silent. Few like to be publicly outnumbered. As a result, a false consensus emerged, with potential dissidents censoring themselves and the rest of the group obtaining an inappropriate sense of unanimity.
The Colorado experiments looked at polarization, but it is not just a polarization problem. Groups tend to seek common ground on anything from politics to weather, a fact revealed by “hidden profile” psychology experiments. In such experiments, groups are given a task (for example, choosing the best candidate for a job) and each member of the group is given different information.
One would hope that each individual would share everything they knew, but instead what tends to happen is that people focus, redundantly, on what everyone else already knows, rather than discovering facts known to a single individual. The result is a decision disaster.
These “hidden profile” studies point to the heart of the matter: group discussions are about more than sharing information and making sound decisions. It’s about cohesion – or, at least, finding common ground to discuss.
Reading by Charlan Nemeth No! The power of disagreement in a world that wants to get along, one theme is that while dissent leads to better and stronger decisions, it also leads to discomfort and even distress. The disagreement is precious, but the agreement seems so much more comfortable.
There is no shortage of solutions to the problem of group thinking, but to list them is to understand why they are often overlooked. The first and easiest is to embrace decision-making processes that require disagreement: appoint a “devil’s advocate” whose job it is to be a nonconformist, or practice “red-teaming,” with a group. internal whose task is to play the role of hostile actors (hackers, invaders or simply critics) and find vulnerabilities. Evidence suggests the Red Team works better than having Devil’s Advocate, perhaps because dissent needs force in numbers.
A more fundamental reform is to ensure that there is a real diversity of skills, experiences and perspectives in the room: screwdrivers and saws like hammers. It seems to be deadly difficult.
When it comes to social interaction, the aphorism is wrong: opposites do not attract. We subconsciously surround ourselves with like-minded people.
Indeed, the process is not always unconscious. Boris Johnson’s cabinet could have contained Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, the two main Tory backbenchers who chair committees Dominic Cummings testified to on group thinking. But this is not the case. Why? Because too often they disagree with him.
The right groups, with the right processes, can make great decisions. But most of us don’t join groups to make better decisions. We join them because we want to belong. Group thinking persists because group thinking is good.
Tim Harford was named the 2020 Wincott Foundation Journalist of the Year. His new book is “How to make the world add up“
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