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The decay of groupthink
September 9, 2006 10:35 AM   Subscribe

The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth. So why then do we put so much stock in the opinions of many, and so little in the opinion of one?
posted by c:\awesome (64 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
"As for the Internet and our newfound ability to tap into the masses, a more subtle form of havoc arises. Simply put, when you make it easy for everyone to put in his two cents, with little filtering or accountability, the scum tends to rise to the top."

I came this close to you this as the last link... but I chickened out at the last second
posted by c:\awesome at 10:37 AM on September 9, 2006


you = using
posted by c:\awesome at 10:37 AM on September 9, 2006


And yet, much of our educational system is focused on collective efforts, socialization and compromise.
posted by spaltavian at 10:49 AM on September 9, 2006


Why? Perhaps we should ask a ninja.
posted by adamrice at 10:53 AM on September 9, 2006


I really don't mean to be snarky, but if you believe this, then why do you care what we here at the Hive Mind think about your post, then? Or has the decay of "just puttin' it out there for discussion" not yet be recognized?
posted by DenOfSizer at 10:54 AM on September 9, 2006


This fluffy article sponsored by:

* Working Together Made Easy
* Team Building Gets Creative
* Boost Sales With Online Meetings (PDF)
posted by meehawl at 10:56 AM on September 9, 2006


Do you want to know what I think…
Shit post. Lame article (who the hell is this David H. Freedman with his dorky haircut and smug grin anyway?) and post padding with ask sites that added nothing.
posted by tellurian at 10:57 AM on September 9, 2006


Stuff like this bolsters my view that you can construct an argument out of any position then, by selective example, make it seem broader and truer than it really is.

In general, what he says is true in some cases. But...everything is true in some cases. Wisdom comes in knowing when to apply what principle -appropriateness, not dogma.

Sorry but Ask Metafilter doesnt fit. When a person asks for help in finding a long-lost book they are not asking for "collaboration". It is more of a form of social networking (connecting with the right person who can help you) than of groupthink.
posted by vacapinta at 11:05 AM on September 9, 2006


Exactly what Hitler thought: why bother with what the masses believe? He believ ed in his vision.
posted by Postroad at 11:10 AM on September 9, 2006


Well, tellurian, you do have the opinion of one so you must be right. Until we agree with you.

And since I do agree with you, you must be wrong.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:10 AM on September 9, 2006


Over at wikipedia, there's currently a discussion about the problem of expert retention in a system that tends to value consensus over expertise. (User:ninja doesn't have a lot to say though).
posted by elgilito at 11:10 AM on September 9, 2006


On preview, Postroad, exactly what Godwin believed. One post can derail a thread. The power of one.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:11 AM on September 9, 2006


"Bernard Nijstad, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, explains that if you take a group of 12 people and have half brainstorm together on a topic while the other six go it alone, all 12 will usually agree that the group experience was more productive--even though those working alone almost always end up with more good ideas. Nijstad believes it's because people in groups spend most of their time listening to others rather than thinking on their own, while lone brainstormers are forced to stew in productive but unpleasant silence."


I see. So we are to now think that because in a set piece experiment with twenty-four people, it appears that a group works less well at solving a set problem than the same number of individuals, that the effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration and consensus is largely a myth, for reasons which are not understood and can only be speculated on? This is exactly why psychology is not a science.

You know, I don't think I'm just going to discard the wisdom of seventy centuries of human wisdom based on studies of twenty four person experiments.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:15 AM on September 9, 2006


Oh for goodness sake. Groupthink got attention as a concept because it was counter-intuitive (two heads isn't necessarily better than one). It's since become entrenched pop psychology but hardly describes the output of all groups.

Now the valuing of consensus *over* expertise is dangerously anti-intellectual. Everyone should have their say, but when we ignore experts on topic because a more popular view is held by laypeople, we all end up in trouble. (witness global warming)
posted by dreamsign at 11:18 AM on September 9, 2006


Silly article, honestly.

Groupthink is a problem, obviously, but a lot of it comes from wanting to please the boss. It comes from wanting to maintain the status quo.

Right now, my workplace is finding itself in a poor position because it needs to make some fundamental changes to how it functions on a daily basis, but the Big Boss doesn't understand the problem, doesn't really want to understand the problem, and doesn't want to upset the status quo. Big Boss would rather ride out the next few years to retirement than prepare the way for the organization to {insert business cliche about visionary stuff} in the coming years.

And here's the thing -- the crowd gets it. The person at the top doesn't.

I live in Seattle, where everyone has to Have Their Say before anything gets done. And I hate it. I hate it with an unending passion that is not Seattle Passive-Aggressive. But I also know that single people making decisions at the top can be detriments sometimes as well, especially when they're working from faulty information.
posted by dw at 11:20 AM on September 9, 2006


Freedman writes: "I'll understand if you demand to see the study on that one. But it's silly to quote a single study on the failure of groups because there are so many--dozens of them, going back decades--that there's no good way to pick one out."

And yet, he still only cites two sources: an out-of-print book from 1972, and a 35-year-old researcher in Amsterdam who writes things like "Decision delay in order to receive further information has different antecedents than has decision avoidance."

Any more info out there, hopefully something written for non-academics?
posted by jdfalk at 11:22 AM on September 9, 2006


We as humans learn a great deal by imitating what we see others doing. The individual has tried on the traits and behaviors of others in youth and then (it is hoped) becomes able to form their own opinions and ideas as they mature. But our info-heavy, thought-light society now is focused on people looking ever outward for trends and ideas that they then make their own. There are few leaders and many followers. So, any idea or process which has been vetted or agreed upon by many is seen as having greater validity than even the most brilliant idea of any one individual. Sad, but true.

A related topic is that of the individual versus the company. A single person is seen as suspect and probably self-interested, while a company is (it appears) much more likely to behave in a benevolent or responsible fashion, because it seems unlikely that so many people collaborating on a goal could be acting amorally or illegally. Someone, it is thought, would speak up if shenanigans are in the offing. In reality, what usually happens is that in the company, no one person sees the actions of the organization as their fault or responsibility, and so they actually behave in just as amoral and crooked a fashion as the worst of individuals.
posted by SaintCynr at 11:22 AM on September 9, 2006


Metafilter: Instead of briefly offending six people at a meeting, you have the chance to enrage thousands.
posted by owhydididoit at 11:24 AM on September 9, 2006


Down with Seattle Passive-Aggression!

Also: just because all you people are totally immune to groupthink doesn't mean that we can't perhaps discuss it in the larger context of the Office Environments Of The World, which, by and large, are ridiculously inefficient and just plain suck. Maybe if more people read about the fact that groups are bad at decision making, they'll take it into account when thinking of how to make decisions.

There are a lot of useless groups out there. Leaders are good. Certainty is good. Decisions are good.
posted by blacklite at 11:29 AM on September 9, 2006


Obviously we need a committee sit down and come to a consensus on this.
posted by effwerd at 11:32 AM on September 9, 2006


I think the post is misleading--the article didn't assert that collaborative work has no value, only that it has come to be over-valued.

I read it more as a call to re-evaluate the importance of individual work, expertise, and problem-solving, and move away from the slavish devotion to team-building and consensus that can poison so many processes in the workplace.

(and, yes, I know the first sentences are "Collaboration is the hottest buzzword in business today. Too bad it doesn't work." But then the article goes on to say things like "So what about the wisdom of crowds? Did Surowiecki really get it wrong? Not necessarily. He simply focused on the sorts of situations in which large groups of people can in fact work pretty well."

So the article itself is much more measured than its title and intro would lead one to believe.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:42 AM on September 9, 2006


Seems to me this is a collective corollary to Unskilled and Unaware of It [pdf]. (previous discussion)
posted by dhartung at 11:45 AM on September 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


Also, the thing I really, really hate about teamwork in the workplace is that it is somehow verboten to call a bad idea bad. So, we have to work together and collaborate, but only in positive, supportive ways....I often find myself spending as much energy in "team meetings" politely dancing around ways to dismiss bad ideas as I do actually contributing new ones.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:45 AM on September 9, 2006


Can't we all agree that sometimes collaboration is a good idea and sometimes it isn't?

Right? Someone give me postiive reinforcement, here. You in the back, you look like you want to do a trust exercise or get a hug. C'mere.
posted by thekilgore at 11:54 AM on September 9, 2006


Now the valuing of consensus *over* expertise is dangerously anti-intellectual. Everyone should have their say, but when we ignore experts on topic because a more popular view is held by laypeople, we all end up in trouble. (witness global warming)

Exactly. It doesn't make any sense to lump "groups, teamwork, collarboration, and consensus" under one umbrella. AskMe would fail if every MeFi member answered every question and the asker only saw the consensus answer, but it works because the group values individual contributions.

Groups work when individual contributions are valued, and they don't work when individual contributions are devalued. Unfortunately, this article devalues individual contributions just as much as the failed groups mentioned.
posted by scottreynen at 12:04 PM on September 9, 2006


just because all you people are totally immune to groupthink doesn't mean that we can't perhaps discuss it in the larger context of the Office Environments Of The World, which, by and large, are ridiculously inefficient and just plain suck.

IMHO this has more to do with the crap rising to the top (or even moreso, being trained in a different stream as "management" without any other experience in the business). As others have mentioned here: person at the top ignores new/different ideas, punishes creativity and rewards conformity, and BANG: Groupthink. Only it's not. It's just a bunch of people watching their own asses because they know they have to.

Also what LooseFilter said.
posted by dreamsign at 12:12 PM on September 9, 2006


"According to his definition, groupthink occurs only when cohesiveness is high. It requires that members share a strong ‘‘we-feeling" of solidarity and desire to maintain relationships within the group at all costs."

The eight symptoms of groupthink
1. Illusion of Invulnerability. ‘‘everything is going to work out all right because we are a special group."
2. Belief in Inherent Morality of the Group. automatically assume the rightness of their cause.
3. Collective Rationalization. ‘‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil."12
4. Out-group Stereotypes. everyone else is potentially incompetent
5. Self-Censorship.
6. Illusion of Unanimity.
7. Direct Pressure on Dissenters.
8. Self-Appointed Mindguards. ‘‘Mindguards" protect a leader from assault by troublesome ideas.

I don't currently participate in groups that have this syndrome.
#1 I think we are capable of doing our jobs, and should not feel accountable for things that are out of our control.
#2 If we didn't believe in the rightness of what we are doing, we would have other jobs.
#3 Not even.
#4 So?
#5 Some do, some do not. The team leader can have a big influence here. A good leader will elicit honesty and openess.
#6 This doesn't really apply. Team members are individually accountable for their work, and make low-scope decisions that they will implement alone.
#7 This doesn't apply either. No pressure is necessary as consensus is not strictly an objective. Team decisions usually have detractors.
#8 Again, inapplicable. There is no sub-hierarchy. It's the leader and the rest of us.

I have in the past participated in such groups, in the administrative wing of a university. It all happens, except for #7, which again doesn't apply, for the same reason.
posted by owhydididoit at 12:13 PM on September 9, 2006 [2 favorites]


I'll understand if you demand to see the study on the successes of decisions by individuals with their perceived wisdom. But it's silly to quote a single study on the failure of single people because there are so many--thousands of them, going back centuries--that there's no good way to pick one out.
posted by tellurian at 12:18 PM on September 9, 2006


How much time have you taken to post movie reviews, rate products, or help a group of strangers with a project? Not a lot, I'll bet. But malicious adolescents, really grumpy people with a lot of time on their hands, and sleazy marketers just love plastering the Internet with their rants, gripes, and plugs.

Ah IMDB forums, how I love you so.
posted by bjork24 at 12:23 PM on September 9, 2006


Groupthink is a problem, obviously, but a lot of it comes from wanting to please the boss. It comes from wanting to maintain the status quo. - dw

Any organization that exhorts 'collaboration' and then capriciously overrules team-generated ideas will result in 1) autocratic decision making by the top dog and 2) people (teams) that quickly learn to "check the boxes" rather than fully particpate in any tedious 'brainstorming'. Garbage in - garbage out.

And ... as for NASA ... wasn't the Challenger accident due to an autocratic decision that overruled good input from 'teams'??
posted by Surfurrus at 12:23 PM on September 9, 2006


Use the right tool at the right time. Sometimes, that is a team, sometimes, someone needs to cut through the bullshit, and just make a decision.

In the corporate world, my experience was that "teamwork" meant that management several levels above us got all the credit, but we got all the blame, and no one had the power to actually do anything.

Having said that, the only really functional team I've been part of was at EDS. And, EDS killed that team, because we didn't synergize properly with the customers vision, or something.
posted by QIbHom at 12:48 PM on September 9, 2006


The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which the limits of a particular situation force a group of people to act in a way that is directly the opposite of their actual preferences. It is a phenomenon that occurs when groups continue with misguided activities which no group member desires because no member is willing to raise objections.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:50 PM on September 9, 2006


Can someone, like c:\awesome perhaps, please explain why c:\awesome almost used dooce in his last FPP link? I used to be a regular dooce reader but I haven't been there in a while. Is Heather running an question answering service now? Or is it just that dooce is always right about whatever? Or is c:\awesome really Heather B. Armstrong? Or is it that, like Heather's dog, c:\awesome is named Chuck? Community, please hope me.
posted by Kwine at 12:55 PM on September 9, 2006


@Kwine: awhile back someone linked a listing of top bloggers, or something along those lines, and I remember several people expressing that they'd vomit onto a small child, or slit their wrists if dooce was listed. I have no problem with dooce, but I think it's funny when everyone starts ripping on her.

That link suggestion was a lark.
posted by c:\awesome at 1:02 PM on September 9, 2006


Thanks, c:\awesome. I like, or I guess, liked, her even if no one else does.
*reads dooce archives*
/derail

posted by Kwine at 1:08 PM on September 9, 2006


the problem of expert retention in a system that tends to value consensus over expertise

Here's one regular Metafilter contributor with something strong to say regarding his expertise versus the wikifiddlers.

I note that the entry for "wikifiddler" on Wikipedia seems to have been expunged with extreme prejudice. Which demonstrates some of the drawbacks of prodding the ant-hill of consensus.
posted by meehawl at 1:17 PM on September 9, 2006


If you've ever been in an "all principals" meeting populated in majority by yes-men and boardroom jockeys -- you can tell those because they're the ones who use "due diligence" as a verb, among other things -- you know how true the premise of the post is... not only does a contributing expert gain nothing from such wastes of time, but in most cases etiquette requires that he actually stop doing productive work during those, resulting in actual productivity losses.

Not that all meetings are necessarily like that, but all too often management deems it profitable to throw more heads at a problem without having much of a clue as to whether any of those heads actually bring anything to the table as individuals. 12 x 0 < 1 x 1, and no amount of Tom Peters management books will change that.
posted by clevershark at 1:55 PM on September 9, 2006


This post explains so much about the current problems in Iraq, it's scary.
posted by paulsc at 2:09 PM on September 9, 2006



posted by cenoxo at 2:46 PM on September 9, 2006


Also, the thing I really, really hate about teamwork in the workplace is that it is somehow verboten to call a bad idea bad.

Well, I used to consult in this area for a firm that consulted in this area. (A doctor to a group of doctors, so to speak.) From my experience, I believe that the problem with what most of corporate America considers teamwork is that they have made teamwork somehow equal to the absence of disagreement. Which is crap. There are healthy, non-wimpy ways to disagree and it can be extremely productive. (Criticize the idea, not the person. Be specific about what you are critiquing and why. Etc.)

When those in authority don't want to hear disagreement, or everyone is trying to preserve some false "nice-nice" culture (and relying on passive-agressiveness instead), or someone is equating collaboration as some warm and fuzzy group hug? That is where collaboration becomes an obstacle instead of beneficial to the end result.

By the way? If you want an example of groupthink in action, look no further than the Bush Administration. You can refer to whydididoit's 8 rules above. That is why this administatration has strayed far, FAR away from what democracy is all about. One of the most un-democratic administrations that I've ever seen. /rant
posted by jeanmari at 3:12 PM on September 9, 2006


The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth. In many cases, individuals do much better on their own. Our bias toward groups is counterproductive.

So if I myself " on my own " decided to work in a group, it follows that in many cases I made the wide choice , because the decision to work in group was taken "on my own" .Yet this achievement is negated by the discovery that ,in many cases, working in group isn't as good as doing on our own.

This challenges the wisdom of taking some of our decisions "on our own". Bottom line : sometime teamwork does best, sometime on our own does best.

Wow is that the rocket science people talk about ?
posted by elpapacito at 4:03 PM on September 9, 2006


There are hundreds of virtually incontrovertible refutations of the central premise of this post.

Every single natural language which has ever existed is the product of the very kind of collective effort these links denigrate.

And, there is a very strong argument to be made that these languages are, in fact, the greatest of all human intellectual creations.
posted by jamjam at 4:09 PM on September 9, 2006


The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth.

You know, that really should have been in quotes or something in the original post. c:/awesome, if you really believe that statement has been "largely" demonstrated, you're on another planet.
posted by mediareport at 5:19 PM on September 9, 2006


Every single natural language which has ever existed is the product of the very kind of collective effort these links denigrate.

But we didn't form a committee to decide to call a spade a spade. Instead, either its inventor outright named it, or it got named in comparison to some other digging implement, or someone travelled overseas and saw foreigners using one and returned home and started selling them, etc. Conversely, if someone else came up with a really good name for something, good enough that people picked it up and distributed the name, then that ends up being the name for the thing except in some pockets of dialect. Words fight for survival in the jungle of language. If two words mean the same thing, they must carve out little niches of nuances, or one or the other will die. If the thing, or place, or action the word names disappears from common usage, the name itself dies out of the language, preserved only in large dictionaries with the notation "(obsolete)".

Arguably all ideas fight for brainspace, and the weapons of their conflict are not only wisdom or applicability or practical purpose, but also appeal, and authoritative provenance, and compatibility with currently powerful ideas.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:28 PM on September 9, 2006



In the 1990s, research by Purdue psychology researcher Kip Williams shed light on "social loafing"--that is, the tendency of people in groups simply to not try as hard as individuals. In fact, the notion that individuals outthink and outdecide groups is so well established among experts that they don't bother to study it anymore.

This has go to be a joke right?
posted by Osmanthus at 5:41 PM on September 9, 2006


The first link is absolutely filled with bullshit. I'm writing my masters thesis on virtual reality and its use in public consultation in urban planning, and so have done a bit of reading lately on collaboration in group settings. Saying that collaboration doesn't work is as ridiculous as saying that society doesn't work - pretty much all aspects of our daily lives involve collaborative efforts in some way. All this guy is describing is poor process, which has little to do with whether collaboration works or not.

Hinted at in previous posts is the need for a diverse group of people who each have some unique skill or knowledge to bring to the table. It's much better to have people of different professions, social-economic status, religions etc. involved in a group such that the collective knowledge is as broad as possible. Error is much more easily avoidable in such a case.

In order for a collaborative model to be successful

• the full range of interests must be involved;
• the dialogue must be authentic in the sense that people must be able to speak sincerely and comprehensibly to each other; that what they say must be accurate and that they must speak as legitimate representatives of a stakeholder interest;
• there must be both diversity and interdependence among the collaborators (Booher and Innes, forthcoming);
• all issues must be on the table for discussion with nothing off limits — the status quo cannot be sacred;
• everyone in the discussion must be equally informed, equally listened to and thus empowered as members of the collaborative discussion;
• agreements are only reached when consensus is achieved among the vast majority of participants and only after substantial serious effort has been made to satisfy the interests of all players. (Innes and Booher 1999).

You'll find that most processes in offices etc. violate at least a few of these tenets. Transparency, respect, open and free speech etc. are usually not present either, which are also commonly-held prerequisites of a process involving numerous individuals.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:43 PM on September 9, 2006 [2 favorites]


To paraphrase Blackjack Pershing (I think - maybe), how many statues do you see erected depicting great committees, teams or groups? Myself, I love sitting in meetings brainstorming and "consensus-making". It helps diffuse responsibility for our stupid, inbred decisions.
posted by klarck at 5:46 PM on September 9, 2006


I'm with klarck. What I find so frustrating about group/committee work at work is that we spend so much time waiting around for one person to do our work for us (and dammit, it's not going to be me again!). Even then, we may decide that he or she is too innovative, or made it look too easy. Au contraire, we say, any results from this committee will take at least six months to organize, otherwise we'll look like a bunch of wankers. Nevermind that a) we've already been at it for two years, and b) my six-year-old could have come up with a better solution in minutes.
posted by sneebler at 6:03 PM on September 9, 2006


"To paraphrase Blackjack Pershing (I think - maybe), how many statues do you see erected depicting great committees, teams or groups? ..."
posted by klarck at 8:46 PM EST on September 9 [+] [!]


This one. And this one. Or this one, too. This is a pretty influential group, even if they never actually grouped. Too many exceptions to prove the rule for Pershing, actually.
posted by paulsc at 6:21 PM on September 9, 2006


I agree this is a lame post and article.

I would say that both groups and individuals have their drawbacks, but individuals are more likely to cause either serious greatness or serious fuckups.
posted by delmoi at 7:20 PM on September 9, 2006


I think it depends on who the "many" are. If they're intelligent and knowledgable regarding the matter at hand, certainly many heads are better than one. People will have different perspectives and areas of expertise. The result will have a richness and breadth that one person alone could never achieve.

Unfortunately I doubt this is the case with most real world situations. Like work. And school. Man I always HATED working in groups at school. The smart kids always had to pick up the slack for the dumb or lazy ones. And the results were always half-baked.

It's like the difference between Ask Metafilter and Ask Yahoo!
posted by Jess the Mess at 8:37 PM on September 9, 2006


And here's the thing -- the crowd gets it. The person at the top doesn't.

And yet, there he is, at the top. Of course, from that point of view, this article is quite elitist. Although I do constantly ask myself why I have to work with such frickin' idiots.

Groupthink is, sociopolitically speaking, downright dangerous. But "collaboration" is a broader term that I think can generally help the corporate world, if, as has already been stated in this thread, it is truly collaborative. There is a line, however fine, between democracy and mob rule.
posted by dgbellak at 11:02 PM on September 9, 2006


The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth.

You know what's great? That debate has been raging for hundreds of years as to whether Homer was a single man or a committee or something even more abstract. Where did those stories come from? Groupthink vs. individualism isn't anything new.
posted by Kronoss at 11:27 PM on September 9, 2006


There's no "I" in "mob-rule."

In actuality, my spirtual belief runs something like this: If there is a God, It is seen in the ability of society to create more than the sum of it's parts could create alone.

However, I've been privy to a number of committee meetings, and anyone who's been a part of any of those knows just how counter-productive they are. They serve largely to squash innovative ideas that are outside the realm of experience of the members present, or else twist those idea so badly to fit the desires of everyone present that they become cumbersome and uselss at best, or opposite of what was intended at worst.

I work in television, mostly, so I've often been involved in tewo types of collaborative meetings. The first involves no one but production staff (the team I'm usually a part of) and these fall along the committee lines. They exist to stroke the egos of the people involved, and all worthwhile ideas are either destroyed outright or bastardized in an effort to include everyone while still coming to the predecided notions of whoever's in power.

The second type involves department heads. The producer, the director, the D.P., the location manager, the production manager, the gaffer, the casting director, the writer, etc. These meetings foster disagreements. The writer battles with the location manager over needing a stop on the beach, for instance, and the location manager battles with the D.P. about whether the spot will allow for enough sunlight through the bay windows, while the director batttles with the D.P. that he really thinks those scens should be at night, and the Gaffer explains the lighting issues that all those night scenes bring. And on and on.

But the thing with the second type of meeting, while it can stil end in bastardized comrpomises, is that everyone present has an area of expertise, and that's what they're speaking from. While megalomaniacs can sometimes gum up the works, generally the D.P. isn't trying to rewrite the script, nor is the location manger trying to direct. They collaborate because each has knowledge and abilities that the others require but lack themselves.

Scott Adams has written about the scenario of Picasso having to propose his work to committee for approval, and the committee's imagined response to him that "dinosaurs are very popular right now." So here's my theory. A committee might help each other to create something decent, but it takes an individual to create something great.

Common language has been mentioned above as a positive result of groupthink. IANA-etymologist, but I know a thing or two about music, which has a similar, and maybe parallel, cultural evolution. In musical evolution, the geniuses buck trends to create their art, and everybody else gets on board to imitate those peices and work from the new rules, untril another genius somes along to change how things are done. Thus Western music is based in twelve notes with seven-note scales, while much Eastern music is pentatonic, and other cultures have come to accept their own scales, or to be based in percussive timbres that are indistinctive to untrained ears. But these weren't the product of groupthink, so much as the effect of the greats having infulence over those who would come later.

To parapphrase Scott Adams again, essentially intellectual evolution went like this: we were idiots in a field, until one woman sat down and squatted out a printing-press-inventing deviant, and from there intellectual evolution moved much faster than human eveolution could. This is a little more optimistic, though:

You put a group of people with the same background and interest in a group to work out a problem, they'lll inevitably all work from the same angle, but with different opinions, and so it becomes a dick-measuring exhibition, no matter how expert the people involved are. However, if you put a group of people all of different backgrounds together, with different interests, to solve one problem, you'll probably get something workable at the end, because all sides will ideally have been heard from and accounted for

Groupthink comes about when people from a single group have the power to enforce an ignorant viewpoint on everyone else. Collaboration comes about when individuals from all relevent groups come together to solve the problem at hand. One is detrimental, and the other beneficial. It's that simple.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:44 AM on September 10, 2006


There's nothing wrong with brainstorming or collecting ideas. The problem usually comes up at the time of execution of the plan, when some specific decisions must be made as to the direction you will take.

Excellent case studies in all of this were done by Graham Allison, as most 1st year PoliSci students should know.

When brainstorm sessions or group projects fail it comes down to a failure of leadership, plain and simple. At the end of the meeting, a direction must be taken and finite decisions made. If you don't have a strong leader to take you one way or the other, you are left with mind-numbing crap that pleases nobody. Otherwise, you're going to have 25% of your group pissed that you didn't take their position, the other 25% pleased, and 50% of the people in the middle not caring one way or another.

Another good example of how "groupthink" or how "group decions" can be used as a way of fucking things up is the space shuttle program. Go back into the history of the development of the STS program and you will see failure after failure of leadership. When it comes to decision making, a good analysis is that of the ill-fated STS 51-L launch of Challenger in 1986. In this case, there were multiple points of failure, but the tendency toward groupthink was the major failure.

Patton was another one who despised groupthink, famously stating: "If everyone is thinking alike, no one is thinking." Another good one on the subject is:

"Have been giving everyone a simplified directive of war. Use steamroller strategy; that is, make up your mind on course and direction of action, and stick to it. But in tactics, do not steamroller. Attack weakness."

Make up your mind and stick to it. You'll never get that out of a committee.

Final example: see Apple Computer between 1976-1984 and then again between 1997-present. The difference is Steve Jobs' management of the company. Autocratic and dictatorial, but of clear vision and execution, which is essential in business.
posted by tgrundke at 8:22 AM on September 10, 2006


Fundamentally, this is a question of the merits of dicatorship versus democracy. We need democracy because if people feel that their opinions have no value, they don't participate as fully, and they may take steps to destroy the system.
posted by riotgrrl69 at 8:32 AM on September 10, 2006


riotgrrl69 -

Hmm - I understand what you're saying, but I think you're a bit off. You can have a 'democratic process' by which input is given and taken. In business this may be a meeting, in politics a caucus, etc.

However, once you have collected this information, a decision must be made. In business, it is rare that a consensus decision is a good one. The quality of the decision and the direction taken depends heavily upon the leadership who gives the final 'go, no-go' call on decisions. For example, I would say that Microsoft is a very consensus, group-think driven organization that leads to many (IMHO) watered-down products that could be much better than they are. Just look at Microsoft packaging to get an idea of the information overload and cluttered presence I'm suggesting.

Compare this to Apple, a far more autocratic organization. Under that structure, everyones' input is very much welcome and good ideas are rarely rejected outright - until (and this is critical), until the moment when Steve Jobs reviews a product/project and gives it his stamp of approval, sends it back for refinement, or he just "Steves it" (ie: scuttle the project).

You do bring up a good point though, about democracy versus dictatorship. Many people who have left the armed forces or private business to pursue government work have found it to be very unsatisfying (see Dwight D. Eisenhower as a classic example). Government work requires consensus, inherently intails much greater amounts of waste and discussion. Military or private business work is far more autocratic: give an order and have it executed.
posted by tgrundke at 8:40 AM on September 10, 2006


why is it that fascism gets things done so much faster and easier? trains run on time, the mail is delivered on time, important decisions don't get hung up in discussion. we need a decider! progress!
posted by fuq at 9:36 AM on September 10, 2006


Problems: dissatisfaction with "groups" is ambiguously assumed as group dissatisfaction; and the experiment was under the subtle direction of an "autocrat" the entire the time, the one who formed the experiment and the artificial groups. Regardless of what one thinks of groups, they form on their own basis when needed and are suppressed as a threat to a powerful individual. When they are formed on the individual's behalf, they are a rubber stamp unit and despised accordingly. I think history shows that an autocrat does poorly when confronted with a military challenge that can exploit each and every mistake centered from his mind, because his decision support group is handpicked to fail on individual terms. Decision theory favors the majority rule because of the advantages of having agreement under the assumptions of autonomy,
posted by Brian B. at 10:47 AM on September 10, 2006


why is it that fascism gets things done so much faster and easier? trains run on time, the mail is delivered on time, important decisions don't get hung up in discussion. we need a decider! progress!

A populace lives in fear, a world goes to war, millions of people are killed, societies and economies destroyed...
posted by jimmythefish at 1:20 PM on September 10, 2006


Metafilter: There's no "I" in "mob-rule."

Sorry, I just had to see that again.
posted by jeanmari at 7:57 PM on September 10, 2006


societies and economies destroyed...

But very efficiently and quickly, yes?
posted by jeanmari at 7:58 PM on September 10, 2006


...the trains run on time...

Still, I think that collaborative efforts require decisive leadership to prevail, though the decisiveness is not sufficient to allow for success. This is common sense, and a good part of the reason that we have so much trouble picking our leaders.

And big ups to jeanmari for repeating my little quip there. I'm thinking about putting it on a T-shirt.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:08 PM on September 10, 2006


This is a good debate and although there doesn't seem to be much chance of finding the synthesis anytime soon I'll offer my thoughts.

I am currently completing a phd on group emotions and devising ways in which they can best be achieved in collaborative musical performances. The goal is not necessarily a 'good' piece of music, or even an original one but rather that very sense of group feeling and mutual understanding that transcends the painful isolation of the self for a while. At any rate, I think this is best achieved when each person feels able to fully personally commit to his performance whilst at the same time sensitively listening to and 'affirming' the performance of others (not so much by imitating as harmonising and developing). These two factors tend to be in tension with each other and so encouraging these states is a matter of finding the right balance between providing a 'safety net' of quality reference material, and a supportive environment, whilst still minimising rules that will inhibit the freedom to express whatever is happening right now. So it's the same old balance between anxiety and boredom that is is supposed to characterise individual 'flow' states.

A good insight I found in a book called 'Group Creativity' by Keith Sawyer was that the extent to which there was a definite goal to an acitivity should be proportional to the amount of rules that structured that activity. If your goal is just to achieve a group mental state then you need rules like mutual affirmation. If your goal is to find an innovative solution then you need rules that speedily filter out clichéd solutions, (like each person having a cliché veto).

If you can't all unanimously agree on a goal for your group activity, then you may as well not bother.
posted by leibniz at 2:32 AM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


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