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  • Raghav Sand

Groupthink: More Perils than Perks

Groupthink is the process of decision-making by a group as a whole, resulting in unchallenged, poor-quality decisions. Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. In a nutshell, human endeavours include evaluation of alternatives, selecting a course of action and taking remedial action, if necessary. Expertise, norms, bias, limitations etc., influence choices.

Government, private enterprises, educational institutions, families and various other groups of individuals function on the basis of decisions. The degree of democratization varies on a case-to-case basis. When groupthink is the norm, critical thinking succumbs due to deterioration of mental efficiency. The probability of success in groupthink is low and personal biases amplify in such dysfunctional groups.

Decision-making by groups can be as bad as the decisions made by an individual on the same subject. Sometimes, groups do worse than individuals. Groupthink can reduce knowledge sharing and creativity, thereby diminishing key benefits of group decision making. Group decisions are subject to factors such as social influence, including peer pressure, and group dynamics.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Apart from a false sense of cooperation and harmony, groupthink has all the ingredients necessary to ruin relationships in the long term. Government and private corporations have formalised hierarchy, with clear demarcation of function and accountability. More often than not, the head of the group, a President or Prime Minister or Chief Executive Officer takes the final call. From the outside it may seem that the head of state and enterprise considered suggestions from their council of ministers and board of directors, respectively. Though, it is seldom the case.

Being wrong after taking a decision based on collective wisdom is rare. Groupthink can be helpful in some situations. When a group of friends or acquaintances agree upon watching or playing a sport or make travel plans, groupthink can save valuable resources and the joy of togetherness can multiply the fun quotient. The same principles do not bear fruit in government policymaking, strategic decision making in businesses, and professional life of an individual. The buck stops with the leader of the group, though brainstorming sessions which victimize dissent and discourage rational discourse are futile.

The Origins of Groupthink Theory

The theory of groupthink was first developed by the social psychologist Irving Janis in his classic 1972 study, Victims of Groupthink, which focused on the psychological mechanism behind foreign policy decisions such as the Pearl Harbor bombing, the Vietnam War, and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Janis’s attempt to determine why groups consisting of highly intelligent individuals often made bad decisions renewed interest in the study of how group behaviours, biases, and pressures affect group decision making.

Janis spelled out eight factors responsible for group think. First and foremost is the illusion of invulnerability in the mind of the leader of the group. Secondly, unquestioned beliefs lead members to ignore possible moral problems and not consider the consequences of individual and group actions. Thirdly, collective rationalization prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs. Stereotyping the view of out-group and pressure on dissenters were listed as the next two factors for groupthink.

Self-censorship, the sixth reason for groupthink, comes from the personal inhibitions of group member, who remains quite due to the fear of being shamed or exposed for expressing their views. The second last cause of groupthink is the perception of unanimity. Lastly, self-appointed mind guards block problematic and contradictory information from members and leader.

Creativity and Freethinking: The Synthesis of Success

Never base your decisions on the advice of those who don’t have to deal with the results. Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna, Swaninarayan — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

In his memoir, Steve Wozniak, the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation offers this guidance to aspiring inventors: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

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