Groupthink and groupshift


Two byproducts of group decision making have received a considerable amount of attention by researchers in Organizational Behavior. These two phenomena have the potential to affect the group’s ability to appraise alternatives objectively and to arrive at quality decision solutions.

The first phenomenon, called groupthink, is related to norms. It describes situations in which group pressures for conformity deter the group from critically appraising unusual, minority, or unpopular views. Groupthink is a disease that attacks many groups and can dramatically hinder their performance.

The second phenomenon we will review is called Group shift. It indicates that in discussing a given set alternatives and arriving at a solution, group members tend to exaggerate the initial positions that they hold. In some situations, caution dominates, and there is a conservative shift. More often, however, the evidence indicates that groups tend toward a risky shift. Let us look in detail


Have you ever felt like speaking up in a meeting, classroom, or informal group, but decided against it? One reason may have been shyness. On the other hand, you may have been victim of groupthink, the phenomenon that occurs when group members become so enamored of seeking concurrence that the norm for consensus overrides the realistic appraisal of alternatives courses of action and the full expression of deviant, minority or unpopular views. It describes deterioration in an individual’s mental efficiency, reality, testing, and moral judgment as a result of group pressures.

We have all seen the symptoms of the groupthink phenomenon.

1. Group members rationalize any resistance to the assumptions they have made. No matter how strongly the evidence may contradict their basic assumptions; members behave so as to reinforce those assumptions continually.

2. Members apply direct pressures on those who momentarily express doubts about any of the group’s shared views or who question the validity of arguments supporting the alternative favored by the majority.

3. Members who have doubts or hold differing points of view seek to avoid deviating from what appears to be group consensus by keeping silent about misgivings and even minimizing to themselves the importance of their doubts.

4. There appears to be an illusion of unanimity. If someone doesn’t speak, it’s assumed that he or she is in full accord. In other words, abstention becomes viewed as a Yes vote.

Groupthink appears to be closely aligned with the conclusion Asch, the expert in behavioral studies, drew in his experiments with a lone dissenter. Individuals who hold a position that is different from that of the dominant majority are under pressure to suppress, with hold, or modify their true feelings and beliefs. As members of a group, we find it more pleasant to be in agreement –to be a positive part of the group—than to be a disruptive force, even if disruption is necessary to improve the effectiveness of the group’s decisions.

Does groupthink attack all groups?
No, It seems to occur most often when there is a clear group identity, when members hold a positive image of their group that they want to protect, and when the group perceives a collective threat to this positive image. So groupthink is not a dissenter-suppression mechanism as much as it’s a means for a group to protect its positive image. For NASA, it is a problem stem from its attempt to confirm its identity as “the elite organization that could do o wrong.�

What can managers do to minimize groupthink?
One thing is to monitor group size. People grow intimidated and hesitant as group size increases and, although there is no magic number that will eliminate groupthink, individuals are likely to feel less personal responsibility when groups get larger than about 10 members. Managers should also encourage group leaders to play an impartial role. Leaders should actively seek input from all members and avoid expressing their own opinions, especially I the early stages of deliberation. Another thing is to appoint one group member to play the ole of devil’s advocate. This member’s role is to overtly challenge the majority position and offer divergent perspectives. Still another suggestion is to use exercises that stimulate active discussion of diverse alternatives without threatening the group and intensifying identity protection. One such exercise is to have group members talk about dangers or risks involved in a decision and delaying discussion of any potential gains. By requiring members to first focus on the negatives of a decision alternative, the group is less likely to stifle dissenting views and more likely to gain an objective evaluation.

Group Shift:

In comparing group decisions with the individual decisions of members within the group, evidence suggests that there are differences. In some cases, the group decisions are more conservative than the individual decisions. More often, the shift is towards greater risk.

What appears to happen in groups is that the discussion leads to a significant shift in a position of members towards a more extreme position in the direction in which they were already leaning before the discussion. So conservative types become more cautious and the more aggressive types take on more risk. The group discussion tends to exaggerate the initial position of the group.

Group shift can be viewed as actually a special case of groupthink. The decision of the group reflects the dominant decision-making norm that develops during the group’s discussion. Whether the shift in the group’s decision is towards greater caution or more risk depends on the dominant pre-discussion norm.

The greater occurrence of the shift toward risk has generated several explanations for the phenomenon. It’s been argued, for instance, that the discussion creates familiarization among the members. As they become more comfortable with each other, they also become more bold and daring. Another argument is that most first world societies value risk that we admire individuals who are willing to take risks, and that group discussion motivates members to show that they are at least as willing as their peers to take risks. The most plausible explanation of the shift toward risk, however, seems to be that the group diffuses responsibility. Group decisions free any single member from accountability for the group’s final choice. Greater risk can be taken because even if the decision fails, no one member can be held wholly responsible.

So how should you use the findings on Group shift? You should recognize that group decisions exaggerate the initial position of the individual members that the shift has been shown more often to be toward greater risk and that whether or not a group will shift toward greater risk or caution is a function of the members’ pre-discussion inclinations.

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