Are you thinking what I’m thinking? (Groupthink)

No Comments

Have you ever disagreed with your boss but chose not to speak up? Ever find yourself swayed by a group that seems confident about a decision? You might be suffering from groupthink. Here’s the transcript for episode 9, season 3 of our podcast How to Choose:

‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking? (Groupthink)’. You can listen to it here on our website or on your favourite podcast player.

Tessa: Hi, there. This is How to Choose, the show that helps you make better decisions and improves your judgment. Thanks for joining us. I’m Tessa.

Ken: And I’m Ken. In this, our third season of How to Choose, we’re exploring the topic of thinking problems or biases that impede our decision making.

Tessa: So I’m going to start off this episode with a story. Back in 1961, President Kennedy authorized 1400 CIA trained Cuban expats to invade their homeland. Sadly, nearly all of them were killed or captured shortly after landing at the Bay of Pigs. And it really was a true black mark in US history. The plan was riddled with bad assumptions and was always doomed to fail. Kennedy himself later asked, how could we have been so stupid? And there’s a book called ‘You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake’ by Olivier Sibony. And it goes into this in more detail, but the crux is that some of Kennedy’s close advisers knew that it was a terrible plan, but they chose not to speak up. And some of them later admitted to silencing their doubts, trusting the wisdom of the group. And this is just a really classic example of groupthink. Ken, have you ever suffered from or witnessed groupthink in action?

Ken: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’d love to say no, but it’s everywhere and it can be really subtle, too. Analysts talk about the importance of contestability, which is a fancy word for challenging what you hear. But one reason contestability is so important, it’s because even intelligent, highly trained people who are supposed to be experts in critical thinking can surrender their opinions and succumb to groupthink. Well, let’s talk about what’s going on when we fall victim to groupthink.

Tessa: There are multiple things at play when it does come to groupthink, and one of which is conformity, which is our tendency to bring our own behaviour in line with the social norm. I always think of the scene from the ‘Dead Poets Society’. Have you seen that movie, Ken?

Ken: Yeah, I actually saw the film at the cinemas when it first came out. It’s a long time ago now. And interestingly, based on the fact that Robin Williams was a comedian, and based on the previews that they showed, we were all expecting that it was going to be this rollicking comedy. So we were a bit taken aback by the way the story unfolded. But, yeah, it is an excellent film.

Tessa: Yeah, so good. And definitely not a comedy, kind of an emotional drama. I’ll put a link in our show notes for the clip I’m about to describe for anyone who’s probably under 30 and has no idea what this movie is. But basically it’s a really charismatic teacher, Robin Williams. He takes his class outside and then he asks three of his students to go for a stroll. And they start out walking randomly, but they quickly start following each other and walking in formation like soldiers. And then someone in the class starts clapping and quickly everyone joins in and starts clapping in unison. The teacher then tells his class: ‘I brought these three up here to illustrate the point of conformity, the difficulty in maintaining your own beliefs in the face of others. Now, those of you and I see the look in your eyes I would have walked differently. Well, ask yourselves why you were clapping.’ So the lesson he was trying to teach his students is that we are all pulled towards conformity and it takes a real deliberate effort to resist that pull of the group.

Ken: And that’s basically groupthink in a nutshell. It’s a great example. We find it really hard to resist the pull of the group and we need to trust in our own beliefs, even if the herd doesn’t always agree with them.

Tessa: Yeah, exactly. And that doesn’t mean that we are always right, but the group as a whole will still benefit from hearing dissenting views. Without them you end up with catastrophes like the Bay of Pigs.

Ken: Yeah. There’s actually two types of groupthink too and it’s worth distinguishing between these. So informative influence happens when you are not an expert and you listen to a group that knows better. So you’re influenced by those who are informed. You’ve been informed and you’ve learned something. The other kind is probably a bit more insidious and that’s called normative influence when you actually know better than the group but you decide to conform to the norms of their beliefs or behaviour rather than rock the boat. So publicly you’re conforming and going along with them. But when you’re away from the group you would actually think and behave differently.

Tessa: Yeah, and it’s a distinction that I didn’t realise was there before I started researching this episode. I just thought groupthink was when people all started believing the same thing. But this public agreement, private disagreement can actually be much more dangerous as a tendency that we have. And it occurs because maintaining harmony is more important to us than carefully analysing the problem. And it happens most in cohesive groups that don’t get a lot of outside views. It’s worse when there is a powerful, respected or important leader as well someone like President Kennedy. In the interest of group unity, people willingly suppress their opinions and sadly, often the first idea suggested by the leader will be adopted. And as you explain, Ken, people either end up genuinely being convinced by the group that informative influence or they suppress their beliefs, normative influence. And both are bad for decision making.

Ken: There’s lots of studies too, that give us insight into this. There’s an infamous study called the Milgram Study from 1963 which demonstrated that we obey authority figures even when it conflicts with our morals. And in this study, participants were asked to turn up a dial on an electric shock from 15 volts to 450 volts. And it had the words slight shock, extremely intense shock and ominously, severe shock danger XXX now, to clarify, there was no electricity running through this system, but participants thought that they were providing a shock to someone else. Whenever a fellow participant who was behind a door but could be heard made a mistake the subject would be asked by the researcher to give them a shock starting at the lowest voltage. Now, this fellow participant was actually a plant. They were one of the study team. But as the shocks got higher, the person behind the door would scream. They would ask to be let out. They say they would say, I want to quit. And finally they would be silenced. Now, the subject was told by the researcher you have no other choice. Please go on. And the experiment would end when the subject had protested four times or when they had given 450 volts, that’s a lot of voltage, to the silent participant three times. 65% of these participants, just normal people, not criminals, delivered the maximum electric shock to the subject. Participants were protesting, they were trembling, they were sweating, they didn’t want to do it, but most of them deferred to the authority figure in the room. And this has been replicated in subsequent, maybe less objectionable experiments. And Milgram drew this conclusion. He said relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Tessa: It’s truly frightening. People thought that they were potentially zapping someone who was unconscious or even worst case scenario, dead. It’s very frightening and it’s actually a horrible experiment and really unethical by today’s standards. But it does explain some of what is happening when we’re in a group situation and someone with authority is saying something that we disagree with. It’s extremely hard to resist authority for most people even when the stakes are extremely high. So how do you think the average person goes when things don’t matter that much? Like at a work meeting discussing some routine process how many of you would stand up to your boss if you knew that they were wrong? And we’ll actually unpack this a little bit more in our vox pop later in the episode.

Ken: Yeah. In terms of the specifics of how this works, there was a study by Hogg and Vaughan in 1995 which indicated that conformity reaches its full extent, when you’ve got a three to five person majority against you. That’s not even a huge number, is it? So three to five people and additional numbers of people after that will have little effect. We’ll put the link to that study in the show notes as well.

Tessa: Exactly. And this is demonstrated in another vintage study by Asch in 1956. He demonstrated the strength of groupthink by showing a board with one line on the left and three lines of differing length on the right. He then asked a group which of the lines matched the one on the left. It was a very straightforward question and everyone could easily see which lines matched. However, if the subject was put last and all the other participants said the wrong answer. The subject would also say the wrong answer 32% of the time. But Ash found that the presence of just one person who went against the majority is enough to reduce conformity significantly, going down from 32% to 5%. Similarly, if the subject was asked to write down their answer rather than speak it, conformity also went down, as that social pressure to conform wasn’t there. So if you think that you’re a lone voice, still speak up, it may actually help others to speak their mind too.

Ken: Yes, in fact, there’s proverb, an old Chinese proverb that says three men make a tiger. Have you heard that one before, Tess?

Tessa: I haven’t come across it.

Ken: Yes. So the proverb comes from an ancient story of an alleged speech by Pang Cong, a Chinese state official. Pang Cong asked the King whether he would hypothetically believe in one civilian’s report that there was a tiger roaming the markets in the capital city, to which the King replied no, of course not. Pang Cong then said well, what if two people reported the same thing? And the king said, well, I would begin to wonder. Pang Cong then asked well, what if three people all claimed to have seen a tiger? The King replied, Well, I would believe it. Then Pang Cong reminded the King that the notion of a live tiger in a crowded market of the capital city was absurd, yet when repeated by numerous people, it seemed real. Why was Pang Cong telling this story? Well, he was about to go on a long journey and he knew that he had enemies left behind in the court who would try to convince the King that Pang Cong couldn’t be trusted. And he was trying to illustrate the fact that even if it was absurd, that if enough people repeated this silly rumour that the King might inadvertently be deceived. Well, three men make a tiger refers to that tendency of individuals to accept absurd information as long as it’s repeated by enough people. So this is something that’s been observed for thousands of years. It’s not a new discovery. Fascinating. Tess, I’m really curious now to hear how your vox pop went. What did you actually ask our listeners?

Tessa: A very simple question. I asked them if they’d ever disagreed with their boss in a meeting and chose not to speak up and why. Spoiler alert, everyone said yes. So here are the reasons.

Vox pop: It wasn’t appropriate to bring up an alternative opinion at the time.

Vox pop: Wasn’t the appropriate circumstance to raise it at that time. It wasn’t in my personal interest to do so. It wasn’t in the interest of the room to do so.

Vox pop: Because they are superior and because I didn’t want to make an uncomfortable situation because he’s my superior. So I kind of find it weird if I am against his ideas.

Vox pop: I mean, it’s happened multiple times. It’ll depend on whether I think I can actually influence the outcome at that point in time, whether there’s a more sensitive time to raise it, whether it’s significant enough to really prosecute, being respectful, whole range of reasons.

Vox pop: Not worth the hassle.

Ken: Wow. So a number of people voiced their concern around managing the relationship, which is really relatable. I think we can all relate to that. People also indicated that sometimes the issue wasn’t actually that important, which again, probably often true. We can pick and choose our battles. But it just made me think here, based on everything that we’ve been talking about, we need to be cautious, don’t we? That we’re not rationalising or justifying our silence in a situation where we should speak up and voice disagreement. Because either it’s a moral issue right, or it’s just a case where we might have something useful to say.

Tessa: Yeah, exactly. And we don’t have to be deliberately difficult by voicing our dissent on every little issue. But a lot of the time it’s good to do it in that group sense because if you then privately go and talk to your boss after, the rest of the group is still thinking that we have this consent over an issue. So sometimes it is better to maybe ask the question and dive a little bit deeper into the issue to make sure you aren’t just all going the view of your boss.

Ken: That’s a really good point, actually, because it may not require you to disagree. It might just say oh that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Could you explain your reasons for thinking that? And they might come to their own discovery through that process as well. Well, this is really interesting Tess. How do we then apply this in our lives?

Tessa: So in our home situation it can definitely affect us. If you’re part of a family or a sporting team or any type of group, this will affect you to some extent. And an easy way to curb some of the influence of group things is to have the leader, positional or de facto, give their opinion last. So if you’re a parent, that’s probably you. Or if you’re part of a club or an organisation and you’re making a group decision, make sure your leader doesn’t say what their view of the situation is until they’ve heard from everyone else.

Ken: Yeah, you make a good point there too, that it’s not just positional leadership, is it? It’s sometimes that de facto leader. And I think being aware of the amount of influence you have is important. We’re not even aware how much we’re influencing others in a work setting. The same principle applies. Other ways you can reduce the prevalence of groupthink is to get people to privately write down their ideas before sharing with the group. In teaching, we sometimes do an exercise called Think Pair Share where you think independently on your own. You discuss in pairs and then you share with the group. In fact, I’m going to use it this week in a course that I’m running. It stops the pressure of feeling like you’re saying the wrong thing and it helps introverts in the group to have their voice heard.

Tessa: Yeah, I do this all the time when I’m running professional development. It’s just so important to make sure that people aren’t anchored by the rest of the group too. We’ve talked about that in a previous episode, that you’re going to get different answers if you get everyone to speak publicly versus giving people that private reflection time to voice their opinion without hearing from anyone else. And whatever group you’re in, you really do want to encourage diversity as well. Remember at the start of the podcast we mentioned that homogeneous groups insulated from outside opinions were the most susceptible. This was reinforced with a 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies and it found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above the industry mean. And those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean. And there’s another great article in the Harvard Business Review that looks into this and other research called Why Diverse Teams are Smarter, which I’ll link to in our show Notes. So think about how you can diversify your group for significant decisions. If you are really homogenous, maybe you want to invite an outside expert or have someone play the devil’s advocate. And these are ways that you can actually counter the fact that we don’t always get to control who is part of our groups and who is part of our decisions. But we can do these things to reduce the chance of groupthink happening now. Ken, what’s your key takeaway from this episode?

Ken: Well, look, I found this episode has a lot to say to me in terms of my personality type and I think for me it’s realising just how important it is to be brave enough to be the dissenting voice in the room. By speaking up, I might offer something helpful to the group, but I can also empower others to acknowledge and voice their disagreement too. And that’s something that I’d never thought about before going into this topic.

Tessa: For me, it’s about allowing that private thinking time or even anonymity for something that’s really important or contentious. So give people the opportunity to answer independently so that the uncertain people aren’t swayed by the confidence. What was your key takeaway? Listener? Teach a friend. It will help it stick.

Ken: And if you’ve enjoyed this episode, make sure to subscribe to how to choose and visit us at au, where we’ve got a lot of different resources that you might find helpful. And if you’ve got time, drop us a review on your podcast player as well. We’d be very pleased about that, wouldn’t we, Tess?

Tessa: We would. It would make our day! And be sure to tune in next week as we have the bittersweet season finale, which will be a great opportunity to refresh your memory about everything you’ve learned so far and learn a few new things as well.

Ken: And look, we’d encourage you, as we often do, to tell your friends about what you’ve learned today. It’s obviously good for us because more people hear about the show, but it is legitimately the best way for you to cement the lessons that you’re taking away, and you can discuss it and get others to reflect on these issues as well. So sharing what we learned is a really awesome way to reinforce those lessons.

Tessa: Bye for now.

Previous Post
Things can only get better (Optimism Bias)
Next Post
My Precious! (Loss Aversion)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed


Subscribe now to get our latest posts as soon as they drop

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap