Groupthink vs The Wisdom of Crowds

I have recently been reading a lot about the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’ which is described by Irving Janis as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” in other words people in a group commit to decisions they don’t necessarily agree with in order to avoid creating emotional tension or conflict with their colleagues. It is a fascinating topic and illustrated by a number of ‘classic’ case studies such as the ‘Bay of Pigs’ scenario in the 1960s when the US almost invaded Cuba over the positioning of Soviet missiles there, potentially leading to a nuclear face-off. Another well-documented example of groupthink was the Challenger space-shuttle tragedy which involved the deaths of seven astronauts just over a minute after take-off in what turned out to be an entirely preventable (because clearly anticipated) disaster involving the low temperature-related failure of rubber sealing rings in one of the solid fuel booster rockets.

The Challenger case is interesting for me not just because of the ‘groupthink’ dimension but because it illustrates the power of political influence on technical decision-making. It also illustrates the tension between ‘groupthink’ and what has become known as ‘the wisdom of crowds’ (in which it is argued that collective decisions are likely to be more effective than individual decisions because they take into account a wide range of knowledge, wisdom and experience). I’m interested in where the boundary between crowd wisdom and groupthink lies and what prevents one slipping into the other. I think the answer must lie somewhere in the idea of diversity. For example, a diverse team is less likely to become cozy and avoid emotional tension, I think. A diverse team is also likely to have a range of interesting perspectives on complex problems which should, or so the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ proponents tell us, lead to better decisions.

All of this begs an important point about the context and consequences of the decision. In terms of consequences we might reasonably think that the potential for loss of human life is the most important conceivable bottom line. Tragically, the Challenger space shuttle and countless military debacles show that fear of losing face, defending careers and simply avoiding conflict with colleagues seem to be even more important.


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