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Group Think: How to avoid common decision-making traps

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I stumbled across a paper from the School of Advanced Military Studies entitled: Effects of Groupthink on Tactical Decision-Making.  (You can find a link to this paper at the end of this posting)

The really cool thing about watching decision-making by all sorts of corporations, organization, teams, and groups is how easily they fall into common, well-known, and avoidable decision-making traps.

The second really cool thing is that few people learn from the past or study the past of flawed decision-making.  For those who do learn from the past all they can do is stand back and watch the inevitable train wreck of yet another avoidable mistake.

To the point, here is a quote from  Major Phillip M. Johnson – the author of this Monograph

This conclusion is based on a review of all Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) databases and published CTC trends and lessons learned periodicals (fiscal years 1995-1999). Only one reference about groupthink was found in CALL Newsletter 90-8, Winning in the Desert I: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for the Maneuver Commander (pg 24). The publication gave the following advice to commanders: “Do not fall victim to ‘groupthink!’ Widespread agreement among the staff is not necessarily a healthy sign. It could mean that the desire to find agreement is overriding critical thinking…”

Being aware of flawed decision-making based on Group Think is pretty important when it comes to military decision-making – it literally is life and death of individuals from one to hundreds of thousands or more. There are case studies in the Monograph which show the effect of the Group Think flawed decision-making in global and tactical scenarios.

Birds of a feather flock together…

Like people associate with like people.  This may be a psychological comforting thing (we can all agree with each other; we all think alike; there is no dissent) but this is exactly what leads to a certain “blindness” in optimal decision-making and critical thinking.

At the end of the monograph Major Phillip M. Johnson writes this:

In times of stress there will be a natural desire to reduce that stress by increasing group harmony and ignoring problems. Be alert for groupthink and when you suspect it is occurring, take a devil’s advocate position and actively find the flaws that everyone is missing.”

Cass Sunstein

“We’re from the government and we are here to help you..”.  Read this posting for background.  Cass Sunstein knows about Group Think and this is why in his book Nudge he advocates this – which, of course, most people don’t like.

Sunstein would impose mandatory “electronic sidewalks” on the internet. These “sidewalks” would display links to opposing viewpoints, a concept described as a “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet” by Adam Thierer, senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress and Freedom Center. “Apparently in Sunstein’s world, people have many rights, but one of them, it seems, is not the right to be left alone or seek out the opinions one desires.”

” it seems, is not the right to be left alone or seek out the opinions one desires..”  On the road to Group Think?  Would the Fairness Doctrine for the Internet help you or harm you?  Psychological upsetting at the expense of better decision-making?  What is more important?

Safe in their opinions… confirmation of beliefs already held…

Is it that people want to be safe in their opinions and therefore they listen only to people who express the same opinion as theirs?  Why do people listen to Rush Limbaugh?  To confirm beliefs already held?  People like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are “one-man Group Thinks” influencing millions of people into a Group Think replete with “Mind-Guards” who protect the group from adverse information and demonize people who do not share their views (see below) .  What about the larger stage of politics?  What about the Group Think of Nazism?  How could it happen?  Group Think works so well that those inside can’t recognize, what might be called, “cultural insanity” by those who are outside the Group Think.

State Controlled Media

Group Think is also somewhat related to state controlled media.  You only get to hear one side.  Do you remember Baghdad Bob from the Gulf War?  As the american coalition tanks were rolling in, Baghdad Bob said the american were not in Baghdad (quotes).  At the time of this writing there are riots in Egypt.  State controlled media has ejected all the foreign journalists and the cameras.  What remains is a single camera and a state controlled news person telling the tale from the ruling powers perspective ( read more  ).  This is also how those in power can also  influence elections  ( read more )

Symptoms of Group Think

In all the cases above what attributes of Group Think could apply … (Overestimation of the Group)  Illusion of Invulnerability, Belief in the Inherent Morality of the Group, ( Closed-Mindedness) Collective Rationalization,  Stereotypes of Out-Groups, (Pressure Toward Conformity) Self-Censorship, Illusion of Unanimity, Direct Pressures on Dissenters, and Self-Appointed Mind-Guards to protect the group from adverse information that could threaten the group’s shared complacency and to keep others in line with the supposed consensus.

Group Think is everywhere

Group Think leading to flawed decision-making (for the larger stakeholders) exists every organization from Fortune 100 Global Corporations down to teams of just a few individuals.  In corporate environments where managers (and even executives) who are not sensitive to Group Think there is a tendency of these managers to hire people like themselves.  Those managers and executives who are sensitive to Group Think tend to hire people with complementary skills and who have a diversity of opinion which mitigates the flawed decision-making of Group Think.  Guess which approach creates more versatile and adaptive teams with better outcomes for external stakeholders?

Officer Education

At the end of the paper Major Phillip M. Johnson writes:

Officer education programs should integrate training and teaching of group behavior, groupthink, and group decision-making. The Army should integrate subjects such as group behavior, preventing groupthink, and training staff group skills into all institutional training schools for officers from the captain level to the colonel level. The Combined Arms Service and Staff School should introduce captains to these subjects. The Command and General Staff College should integrate these subjects as part of its core curriculum during leadership and training blocks of instruction. Likewise, groupthink and group behaviors should be reinforced during all pre-command courses for future commanders.

The idea of Group Think has been around for 40+ years. 

Will you learn from the past?

Here are a few snips from the full paper (50 pages) which you can read below

Irving Janis introduced the theory of groupthink in his classic study Victims of Groupthink in 1972. He attempted to determine why groups, often consisting of individuals with exceptional intellect and talent, made irrational decisions. He concluded that groups often experienced groupthink, a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. His major proposition was groups that displayed groupthink symptoms were more likely to produce poor decision outcomes.


TYPE I: Overestimation of the Group

1.   Illusion of Invulnerability. This symptom is defined as excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks with little consideration of what would happen if the worst outcome should occur or the consequences of the solution proposed by the group. This always includes the overestimation of the potential success of the solution or the abilities of the group.

2.   Belief in the Inherent Morality of the Group. This symptom implies that the group ignores the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

TYPE II: Close Mindedness

3.   Collective Rationalization. This is an effort by members of the group to discount, withhold, or distort warnings and other information that could threaten the group’s belief by convincing themselves as to the validity of the group’s position. The group does not realistically or seriously consider outside information or other potential decision alternatives.

4.   Stereotypes of Out-Groups. “Just as the groups are overconfident in their own powers and morality, they tend to believe their opponents are weak or foolish.”13 This results in an underestimation of their opponent’s ability to counter or interfere with the group’s plan.

TYPE III: Pressures Toward Uniformity

5.   Self-Censorship. This occurs when members hold back expressing their doubts or deviations from the apparent group consensus. This may reflect each member’s inclination to minimize to himself the importance of his doubts and counterarguments.14

6.   Illusion of Unanimity. Self-censorship and other devices create an environment of unanimity concerning judgments conforming to the majority view. This environment is also facilitated by the false assumption that silence means consent.

7.   Direct Pressures on Dissenters. The group uses direct social pressure on any members who express descent with the majority’s views, stereotypes, proposed solution, or commitment. Group pressures and norms make it clear that dissenting viewpoints and behavior are contrary to expected group norms of loyalty.

8.   Self-Appointed Mind-Guards. Members of the group take it upon themselves to protect the group from adverse information that could threaten the group’s shared complacency and to keep others in line with the supposed consensus.

At the end of his book Groupthink , Janis formulated a set of potential solutions about how to prevent groupthink. Janis’s recommended solutions are summarized below:

  • Each member must be a critical evaluator of the group’s course of action; the leader should encourage an open climate of giving and accepting criticism.
  • Leaders should be impartial and refrain from stating their personal preferences at the outset of group discussion; they should limit themselves initially to fostering open inquiry.
  • Set up parallel groups working on the same policy question under different leaders.
  • Each member of the group should privately discuss current issues and options with trusted associates outside the group and report back their reactions.
  • Different outside experts should be brought in from time to time to challenge the views of the core members.
  • There should be one or more devil’s advocates during every group meeting.
  • In conflict situations, extra time should be devoted to interpreting warning signals from rivals and to constructing alternative scenarios of their intentions.
  • Second chance meetings should be held to reconsider the decision once it has been reached and before it is made public.


Effects of Groupthink on Tactical Decision-Making
School of Advanced Military Studies
United States Army Command and General Staff College

Memes: Information Packets with Attitude

Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches

Written by frrl

February 4, 2011 at 7:07 pm

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