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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

February 7, 2011

Errors in Group Decision Making

In our society, many consequential decisions are group decisions. Group decisions are subject to many of the same possible errors in the decision making process as individual decisions. An effective group decision will hopefully be a better decision than an individual decision. Haven’t we always been taught that: “Two heads are better than one”?

However, the research shows that group decisions are often worse than individual decisions. One of the culprits that contribute to this phenomenon is “groupthink”. Groupthink is the term for the tendency of a group to make an erroneous decision due to group loyalty and social cohesion. [i]

Examples of decisions made through groupthink are President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs decision, President Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War, and President Nixon’s Watergate decisions.[ii] The decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger during cold weather, resulting in its demise, has also been identified as an example of groupthink.[iii]

Janis (1982) identified three major causes of group think. The first is overestimation of the group. The group thinks of itself as more righteous, more intelligent, or more powerful than others resulting in overconfidence. The second major cause is closed-mindedness of the group as the group rationalizes away any challenges to their thoughts. Outsiders (those not considered part of the group) with other views are dismissed as inferior and not worthy of regard.

The third major cause is groupthink is group pressures for uniformity. Individuals self-censor any of their concerns or dissenting views to maintain group uniformity. The individuals do not want to stray from the prevailing view of the group. Although there may be individuals who harbor concerns or dissenting views, there exists a shared illusion of unanimity. Dissenters are pressured to conform to the view of the group. Within the group, may exist a self-appointed “mind-guard” who keeps information that may challenge the group’s decision from the group.[iv]

Preventing groupthink requires a group leader than encourages dissent and criticism.[v] Many in society have been taught that we all should get-along with others, and they are not comfortable being involved with what can sometimes be a bit of rancor during a clash of ideas. But constructive dissent and criticism, not involving ad hominem attacks, are essential to making any good decision.

Group leaders should not state their preferences early in any discussion.[vi] The statement of a preference of a group leader, especially if the group leader is considered an authority, is a sure way to stifle dissent and criticism. Most people will not see any benefit to them in questioning the idea of the leader.

Multiple groups can be set up to make the same decision and then the groups can have a more open discussion of any differing ideas. Group members can discuss the deliberations of the groups with others, and then share those conversations with the group. Also, groups can ask outside experts or others to attend the group meeting and provide input to counter the insularity of the decision making process. Finally, a devil’s advocate should be appointed whose role is to challenge the groups ideas—an especially effective procedure.[vii]

I have been involved in groups throughout my lifetime, and rarely has a group not exhibited aspects of groupthink. Groupthink may not make much difference in a decision involving where to hold the group’s annual banquet, but can lead to catastrophic failure in more important decisions.



[i] Janis, I.L. (1982), Victims of Groupthink (2nd ed.) Boston. Houghton Mifflin.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Esser, J.K. & Lindoerfer, J.S. (1989). Groupthinkand the space shuttle Challenger Accident: Toward a quantitative case analysis. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2, 167-77.

[iv] Baron, Jonathan, 2008, Thinking and Deciding, 4th Ed.,, NY, Cambridge University Press, p.225;Plous, Scott, 1993, The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, N.Y. McGraw Hill., p. 203.

[v] Ibid. p. 203

[vi] Ibid. p. 204.

[vii] Ibid. p. 205.

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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