De ramp met de Challenger was het gevolg van groepsdenken

Als zondagsblog deze keer een beschouwende analyse over de psychologie achter het klimaatdebat. Daar schreef ik al eerder over aan de hand van een column van de inmiddels welbekende Roos Vonk.

Arnold Fellendans stuurde me de onderstaande voortreffelijke analyse van de werking van het verschijnsel “groepsdenken”, zoals onderzocht door Irving Janis en op verschillende plaatsen op internet te vinden. Het is één groot feest van herkenning voor hen die al jaren proberen de waandenkbeelden van de alarmisten te bestrijden.

Grappig genoeg stuurde Arnold deze echter niet aan mij op om die reden, maar omdat hij ook wel eens dit soort gedrag bij sceptici meent te ontwaren! Dat maakt het artikel natuurlijk alleen maar méér lezenswaardig. Iets met de splinter in andermans oog en de balk in het eigen oog……

Graag krijg ik in de reacties van jullie voorbeelden van sceptische ”groupthink”. Dan kunnen we ons leven beteren!             

Groupthink is ook noodzakelijk kwaad
Helaas is deze vorm van collectief ontsporen niet beperkt tot de klimaatdiscussie. Veel belangrijke structuren in onze maatschappij zijn er zelfs geheel op gebaseerd. Neem de enorme bedragen die er in iets grotere bedrijven besteed worden aan het “alle neuzen dezelfde kant op krijgen”.

En hoe kun je een land zonder dictatorschap bestuurbaar houden als je niet een soort algemene publieke opinie kunt mobiliseren? Zonder een gemeenschappelijk doel en een gevoel van groepsverbondenheid faalt elke samenwerking. Het is dan ook meestal de eerste stap naar de ontwikkeling van een arm land, om een gemeenschappelijke ideologie te creëren. Pas dan gaan de handen écht uit de mouwen en worden samenwerkingsverbanden productief.

Ik wil zelfs zover gaan te stellen dat dit gedrag diep in ons wezen verankerd zit en de basis vormt van de mens als sociaal wezen. En dat het juist daarom zo gemakkelijk is om zelfs grote groepen intelligente mensen volstrekt de verkeerde kant op te sturen.

Arnold Fellendans steunt niet alleen het idee dat dit gedrag in ons wezen verankerd is, maar hij onderbouwt dat in een artikel over ons ‘geloofvermogen’. Daarin behandelt hij onder meer de internethype en de kredietcrisis als voorbeelden van gevolgen van het sterke geloofvermogen van zeer intelligente mensen, zoals topmanagers van grote bedrijven en bankiers en hun toezichthouders.

Ook wetenschappers zijn sociale dieren.
Onderstaande voorbeelden tonen aan hoe verschrikkelijk dit mis kan gaan. De conclusie moet dan ook zijn dat het nuttig is om naar een gemeenschappelijke aanpak te streven, maar dat men als individu altijd zelfstandig en kritisch moet blijven kijken naar het groepsproces.

Met het risico om elitair over te komen: ik vind dat dit met name geldt voor wetenschappers en andere hoogopgeleiden. Die hebben meer kennis en begrip van de werking van ingewikkelde verschijnselen, of moeten tenminste in staat geacht worden om daar kennis over op te bouwen. Daarbij worden ze vaak alleen al om hun status beschouwd als opinieleider. Het verkondigen van een mening als expert  brengt de verantwoordelijkheid met zich mee om altijd uiterst kritisch te blijven naar de denkbeelden die in de eigen groep ontstaan en vaste bodem vinden.

Groene Rypke de Duurzaamste
Voor degenen onder jullie die bij het lezen van de vaak verbijsterende verhalen van Rypke wel eens denken: “Maar hoe kan dat nou, één bekeerde Wageninger die het opeens allemaal beter weet dan hele instituten?”,  is dit een wake-up call.
Als er iets gevoelig is voor groepsdenken, dan is het juist het soort instituten, waar hij tegen in het geweer komt, waarvan de leiding een eigen (soms niet eens) verborgen agenda heeft.
Helaas zijn de onafhankelijke kritische denkers juist altijd eenlingen.
Denk dus goed na vóór je om deze reden een kritisch verhaal terzijde schuift!

Directeuren zijn eindverantwoordelijk
Onderstaand verhaal lijkt vooral bedoeld als handvat voor hen die leiding geven aan groepen waarin dit verschijnsel op kan treden. Daarom draag ik dit blog op aan de Dijkgraven, Haaken, Hajers en Stamannen van deze wereld. Zij hebben enorm veel invloed op de manier waarop er in hun instituten gedacht wordt, en kunnen het verschil maken tussen ontsporen en op koers blijven. Ik neem aan dat ook zij bij het lezen van deze analyse flink wat momenten van  herkenning zullen ervaren.
En ik hoop dat ze iets zullen doen met de aanbevelingen!

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‘Groupthink’

Theorised by Irving Janis

Groupthink is a concept that was identified by Irving Janis that refers to faulty decision-making in a group. Groups experiencing groupthink do not consider all alternatives and they desire unanimity at the expense of quality decisions.

Group communication involves a shared identity among three or more people, a considerable amount of interaction among these people, and a high level of interdependence between everyone involved. It is essential to understand group dynamics for a variety of reasons. Everyone participates in groups throughout the course of a lifetime, and these groups are often very goal-oriented. The business community, non-profit organizations, and governments all use groups to make decisions. Sometimes this condition known as Groupthink can occur in groups that are extremely task-oriented and goal-driven. Groupthink is as “a mode of thinking people engage in when cohesiveness is high”. Groupthink leads to poor decision making and results in a lack of creativity. Although Groupthink has been studied extensively, many people are unaware of its dynamics and the consequences that they might induce.

It is the one of the most severe problem in our society. It is a serious mental disease that has not been recognized as such. It turns members of a group into believers and followers of rituals. They believe the group is right and others are wrong. It reduces communication from the group to outsiders. In serious cases of group-think, members use force and violence to convince non-believers.

Eight Main Symptoms of Group Think

    1. Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.
    2. Collective  Efforts to Rationalization or Discount Warnings: Members discredit and explain away warning contrary to group thinking.
    3. An Unquestioned Belief in the Groups Inherent Morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.
    4. Excessive Stereotyping: The group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group.
    5. Direct Pressure on a Member for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.
    6. Self-Censorship of Deviations: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.
    7. A Shared Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group’s decision; silence is seen as consent.
    8. The emergence of a Self Appointed “Mindguard”: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.

Negative outcomes

  • Examining few alternatives
  • Not being critical of each other’s ideas
  • Not examining early alternatives
  • Not seeking expert opinion
  • Being highly selective in gathering information
  • Not having contingency plans

Irving Janis did lots of work in the area of group communication. He wondered why intelligent groups of people sometimes made decisions that led to disastrous results. Janis focused on the political arena. He studied The Bay of Pigs conflict, The Korean War, Pearl Harbor, The conflict in Vietnam, The Cuban Missile Crisis, makings of The Marshall Plan, and Watergate. Janis was puzzled by the inability of very intelligent people to make sound decisions. His answer was a condition he termed Groupthink.

Janis defines Groupthink as a “a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” . Janis further states that “Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures”

Challenger Launch
January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.  Seventy-three seconds later it explodes.  Inquiring finds that two rubber O-rings fail in the Solid Rocket Boosters.

The O-rings had been classified as a critical component  “a failure point-without backup-that could cause loss of life or vehicle if component failed”.  Engineers were concerned before the flight because O-rings had never been tested below 14.4°C and morning of launch had predicted temperature below freezing.  Even with engineers concerns managers still pushed for a launch, creating a great example of ‘groupthink’.

1.      Illusion of Invulnerability. NASA had almost perfect record causing group attitude of invulnerability.

2.      Collective Rationalization.  Misconception of backup O-rings was shared by management and never questioned.

3.      Belief in Inherent Morality of Group.  Engineers had impression that managers had changed morals.

4.      Outgroup Stereotypes.  Managers were rude and noncompliant with engineers.

5.      Direct Pressure on Dissenters.  Managers’ worry over NASA’s public view and future caused pressure on engineers decision.

6.      Self-Censorship.  Engineers censored their statements of conditions.

7.      Illusion of Unanimity.  Engineers concerns were not submitted to superiors.

8.      Self-Appointed Mindguards.  Flight readiness team did not receive O-ring experts’ views.

Het moment dat de eerste langs de ring lekkende waterstof bij de Challenger ontbrandt

Other Famous Examples

  • Pearl Harbor Attack.
  • Truman’s invasion of North Korea.
  • Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco.
  • Johnson’s escalation of Vietnam War.
  • Nixon’s Watergate break-in.

 

De invasie in de Bay of Pigs liep voor Kennedy uit op een fiasco


Preventing Groupthink

Janis warns that preventing groupthink may open the decision-making process up to other errors, however it is still worthwhile trying. Whilst he theorizes that some knowledge of Groupthink can be dangerous in certain situations, it can certainly help make better decisions if the people are reasonable and aware that they should not fall victim. Decision making groups should avoid group insulation, overly directive leadership and some other factors that can encourage ‘premature consensus’.

The following prescriptions for preventing Groupthink are suggestions intending to help groups make better decisions. However they do not guarantee that a good decision will necessarily be made, the suggestions are intended merely to lessen the chances that Groupthink will occur.

  • Each person in the group should be encouraged to be a critical thinker.

Create an atmosphere in the group that encourages people to express their ideas. One problem of Groupthink is that dissenters are either disregarded or ‘ganged up on’. Every member should be encouraged to raise any concerns they have with a proposal. The leader too must be able to accept criticism, without giving any disapproving feedback even by looks or facial expressions. Likewise, members should be sensitive to feelings.

  • The leader should try to remain impartial to ideas or proposals so as not to influence those below him or her.

Often when a leader of the group expresses a preferred option, group members can be encouraged to seek agreement with him or her rather than critically evaluating all possibilities. The leader should not direct the group towards their personally favoured solution, and should be careful not to disregard comments made otherwise.

  • Use several groups in parallel each with different leaders to work on the same problem.

Generally the different groups are more likely find different proposals the best. Likewise, different leaders will direct the group in different ways. So the possibilities and criticisms are more likely to be covered between the groups.

  • Use several smaller sub-groups that then convene together as a larger group and then reach their decision.

Again the use of separate groups increases the chances of a better coverage of proposals and problems by the whole group. However, the groups should be careful not to adopt a ‘the others will do it’ attitude where they assume another group will have looked at a problem or other proposal.

  • Each member of the group should sometimes discuss the group’s progress with trusted associates outside of the group (but within the organization) and convey their thoughts back to the group.

This gets some fresh ideas and views on the problem. It could even be discussed with an associate in a different group of the organization to gain a whole new view.

  • Outside expert opinion should be sought.

Janis recommends this from colleagues although outside experts could also be used similar to an ‘external audit’ of the proposals. The outside experts would ideally check that nothing has been overlooked and pick up on anything that may have been missed or that they feel deserves more attention.

  • Assign a devil’s advocate.

Essentially someone in the group should be assigned this role and their job as such is to critically evaluate proposals and question everything. This is only effective if they are not disregarded and also if they do actually perform this task. Otherwise, this can actually lead to more confidence in a bad decision because the group will feel that the decision was made with due consideration of criticisms.

  • Spend time discussing and theorising any rivals possible moves or responses.

Time should be spent regarding possible responses or prior moves by rivals. It is important that the rivals are not assumed to be inferior or incapable. One possible way is for the group to come up with best-case and worst-case scenarios.

  • Have a ‘second chance’ meeting.

After a consensus is reached but before a final decision is made, a second-chance meeting should be held. This should be presented as an opportunity for group members to express any lingering doubts or concerns with the consensus reached.

Sometimes this is more effective in an informal setting. The ancient Persians, and in Roman times the Germans also, apparently made a habit of reaching decisions twice- once sober, once drunk. Whilst getting drunk is not necessarily recommended, the idea of an open and relaxed meeting is.

 

Het is aan te raden om de zaken nog een tweede keer te bekijken

As mentioned, these suggestions are not cures for Groupthink, they do not guarantee good decisions. However being aware of the Groupthink symptoms and with these suggestions in the back of one’s mind, a better outcome is more likely.

References

  • http://sol.brunel.ac.uk/~jarvis/bola/communications/groupthink.html
  • http://www.abacon.com/commstudies/groups/groupthink.html
  • http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/shuttle/challenger.htm
  • http://www.afirstlook.com/archive/groupthink.cfm?source=archther
  • http://www.asce.org/professional/leadership/emtechniques.cfm
  • http://www.css.edu/students/lhamre/performing.htm
  • http://www.swans.com/library/art9/xxx099.html
  • Janis, Irving L.; Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. (1982)
  • Moorhead & Griffin; Organizational Behaviour. (2001)

 

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