The dangers of groupthink

Writing in the Sunday Times on November 8, 2020 one its columnists, Luke Johnson, selected as his topic the interesting human psychological topic of groupthink. He notes that ‘all of us suffer from cognitive biases’. Some are well known to those with a rudimentary understanding of human psychology, such as stereotyping, a common failing in all of us upon meeting a new person or situation for the first time.

Johnson goes onto note that cognitive biases are ‘systemic distortions to rationale thought that can very often deliver bad outcomes’. He also goes on to venture, correctly, that the trend towards using remote working via video conferences actually makes the risks of groupthink and bad outcomes more likely.

Challenger Disaster

Many high-profile examples of groupthink are well known to the public. Historians tend to quote examples such as the events that lead up to the destruction of the United States Space Shuttle Challenger which blew up 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986.

Saftey debates concerning the structural integrity of the ‘O-Rings’ that provided room for booster rocket seals to expand under the high pressure and temperature environment around launch ignored advice from the manufacturers that expected them to fail as they had been so cold from overnight freezing temperatures. All seven crew on the shuttle were lost in what can be argued as the most high-profile incident in mankind’s contemporary exploration of space. Without doubt this was, as Luke Johnson noted about groupthink, a bad outcome.

Many academic papers have been published on the notion of groupthink. It was a term that was first introduced by a Yale University Social Scientist, Irving Janis, in 1972. In his foundation paper on the subject Janis theorised that, counter-intuitively, groups of people might not be able to create optimal solutions to problems they are posed.

It is not unreasonable for ordinary people to think that many eyes on a problem must improve the analysis of whatever the dilemmas are that are being faced. To maintain the space theme, the work of the group appointed by NASA during the fated Apollo 13 mission, which also nearly had a disastrous outcome, to solve the problem of increasing levels of carbon monoxide in the living areas occupied by the astronauts, was exceptional. For Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Director responsible for Apollo 13, “failure was not an option”, even though it is clear he never said those words.

The Apollo 13 success story, despite all the odds, is one of a number of examples of where groupthink works. Given a single problem to solve, which is highly focused and clear in its goals, the application of a balanced number of brains to the problem makes sense. Especially if in the group you have one or two disrupters that challenge the status quo. However, once they have done their work and the main problem has been solved, they should quickly step back, allowing those who are more practically focused to deliver the desired outcome.

Obviously, the issues that arise from groupthink are contextually dependent. Where groups have time to debate options to solve specific situation, one inherent danger is that you get a lack of involvement from those who become bored with the topic and disengage. Chairing such groups is a function that can often be overlooked as to who is best and gaining the most out of the group.

Mediating conversations that go over the same ground repeatedly to draw discussion threads to a conclusion is a key task. Appointing the right person to such posts that can realise when a discussion thread has exhausted possibilities and that the time is right to develop a conclusion, is key. This avoids disengagement from those in the discussion determined to create a workable solution.

However, in the emergency services other contexts also exist. Those where the time to make decisions that might save lives is not long. The challenge here is to find an approach to decision making that harnesses the power of the group whilst avoiding the kind of inertia that can result from group deliberations.

Low Knowledge Danger

This is at one end of a spectrum of outcomes, all of which can be bad, where a group rapidly converges on an analysis of the situation through stereotyping. While this is a great asset for those who have many years of service and can drawn upon that experience in a balanced way, it is not an asset when unknown dangers may lurk around the corner. Of all the challenges posed by groupthink, one stands out: it is where a group has low knowledge. This is where some in a group, such as those that have been trained and gained a certificate of proficiency, are seen to be better placed to take decisions rather than those who may simply be quite good at the application of common sense.

In the kind of high-risk decision making environments that exist today, the problem of low knowledge is critical. Those likely to be involved in decision making need to be given at least some base knowledge of what they should think about and encouraged to find ways to develop that knowledge as part of their personal continuous professional development.

These situations are often accompanied by significant dilemmas. The most stark of these being, is it right to deploy members of the emergency services into harm’s way? Should lives be risked to save the lives of members of the public who have in some way been impacted by events? For winchmen riding a wire to a housetop to snatch a potential victim from being swept away in a flood, danger is part of the job. Risks can be minimised through professionalism and training.

But for a crew from the Fire and Rescue Service deploying into the aftermath of a terrorist attack, the risk calculation is very different. People you know as friends could be asked to go into an uncertain situation where people might die. For families and colleagues at work such an outcome would have serious consequences. This is one example of a dilemma that is difficult to resolve. Stressful situations like these can result in occurrences of groupthink.

Research into the impact of groupthink has provided some detailed insights into its failings. One of these is self-censorship. This is where people harbour doubts about the way that a group is discussing a problem. Evidence provided to the inquest over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes by two police officers suggested that they were unhappy with the way the operation was unfolding but had been reluctant to speak at the time.

It is easy, with hindsight, to suggest what they had experienced was a concern over another cognitive bias. This is called anchoring. It is where too much emphasis is placed upon the first piece of information that is given. In the case of the tragic death of Jean Charles De Menezes, the initial evaluation that he was one of the terrorists that had tried to attack the London Underground the previous day, proved fateful.

Other elements of groupthink often relate to each other in complex ways, making managing the phenomena difficult. Illusions of unanimity is one such effect. It appears where everyone, by the lack of any questioning of what appears to be a consensus evaluation, appears to agree. Whereas in fact they do not.

Illusion of Invulnerability

This effect can be linked to other psychological elements, such as what is often called the illusion of invulnerability. This occurs because those who are members of the group allow their egos and selection to be in the group to dominate their process of reasoning. When no one speaks out, the common elements with the illusion of unanimity, people in the group believe they must be right.

Another more difficult problem to solve is that of rationalisation. All human beings like to rationalise their actions with their values and beliefs systems. Where this does not occur, a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance occurs. This can be one of the pre-cursors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can appear some time after an event and in ways that make it apparently unconnected with the real triggers that created the impact on the individual.

Rationalisation is a particularly difficult effect as people in a group can be drawn to create a united front by the power of an individual (and by implication their position) or the apparent logic of their arguments. In some situations, people in a group may be reluctant to take command of an incident and are happy to allow others to lead.

Such individuals may be ideally placed to carry out specific operations, where the risks can be managed, but are simply not ever going to be capable of being an incident commander where a degree of certainty in an incident is replaced by huge uncertainties, such as are there terrorists still on the scene?

Insights into the causes and elements of groupthink are important for the development of any command team that might have to take decisions where serious dilemmas over risk-taking exist. Understanding the elements of groupthink and how they can be brought to the surface is an important skill for tactical and operational commanders. They are the ones closest to the incident and are the people chosen to take decisions that may appear to be very difficult.

Solving groupthink is not an easy task. It is axiomatic that being able to cope requires regular practice so that decision making strikes the right balance between stereotyping and inertia. First and foremost, forming a cadre of people within an organisation that are thought to be resilient enough to cope with taking such decisions is a priority.

Giving this cadre, regular desk-top exercises and reprising past training events with slightly different variances in events and the availability of information as events unfold, is also important. The development of a national standard in this area would be an important initiative so that all people likely to take command during a complex incident work from a similar training base of understanding on the subject of groupthink and its nuances.

Fire Knowledge Network

This is the first of a series of articles that is being published by the Fire Knowledge Network around the issue of how cognitive biases affect decision makers working is stressful situations. This is another piece of the Fire Knowledge Networks development of its Charter of Resilience with its accompanying training programme.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More