The Problem Of Groupthink:
How To Encourage More Independent Thinking
When I need to make a big decision at work, I often turn to team members for help. But I do so cognizant of the pitfalls of “groupthink,” a term psychologist Irving Janis coined back in 1972. Groupthink is the tendency to make decisions based on consensus, even if, individually, group members may find those decisions to be weak.
To guard against groupthink, I typically begin by asking team members to email me their initial opinions separately. I refrain from expressing my views at this stage, so as not to unduly influence anyone’s opinion.
But there’s much more to avoiding groupthink than soliciting opinions in separate emails. Independent thinking is more than just generating an opinion on one’s own. It’s a skill that can be learned, and there are new and powerful ways to teach people to be better, more independent thinkers.
According to the study, educators in democratic countries emphasized more individualistic approaches to reasoning. “Independent thinking was endorsed in more developed and democratic countries,” the researchers noted.
It should be no surprise that cultural differences can have such a profound impact. After all, humans are a deeply social species, and according to experts, social factors — like peer pressure, lack of diversity and stereotyping of outsiders — often drive groupthink.
A democratic culture is no guarantor of healthy group reasoning, though. Just consider the banking decisions that led to the financial collapse of 2008. It was a classic case of groupthink, in which a group of apparent experts came to an uncritical consensus, ignoring clear warning signs and pursuing a disastrous course of action.
Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to avoid groupthink. For one, people should be encouraged to play the devil’s advocate. Entertaining opposing viewpoints can help break up the norm of agreement. Along the same lines, people with a dissenting opinion should be encouraged to speak up, without negative consequences, so long as their opinion is fact-based and well-researched.
Groupthink thrives in large groups. So, if possible, groups should be broken up into smaller units. Smaller groups tend to tolerate more dissent and facilitate more open-ended discussions, since members don’t feel pressure to tailor their views to a large “audience.”
Both large and small groups should also foster as much diversity as possible to ensure alternative viewpoints. There are the obvious factors to consider like gender and ethnicity. But intellectual diversity also makes an important difference. Is a team made up entirely of people with a math background? Or does it also include people who have experience in the arts? This kind of diversity of experience brings more worldviews to the decision-making table and will improve the overall judgments of the group.
In my experience, context can also do a lot to limit groupthink. With more background knowledge, team members find it easier to see the proverbial “big picture.” For example, if a team is tasked with finding a new way to navigate city streets, members of the team should know a) the ways that already exist; b) the costs associated with creating a new way; c) some history on urban transportation. Armed with this wealth of context, people are more likely to avoid the errors of groupthink for the simple reason that they have more information about possible alternatives.
All of these approaches can be applied at various age levels with some modifications. Even young children can see the value of playing devil’s advocate, for instance, and the sooner that we — and educators — start putting an end to groupthink, the better.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.