Overcoming Groupthink

In their book Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter Cass R. Sunstein of the  Harvard Law School and Reid Hastie at of University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business provide an explanation of the causes of groupthink and offer practical steps organizations can take to overcome them. Their observations and recommendations align with how we at Isurus view the risks of groupthink associated with focus groups and the concrete actions we take to avoid it.

Groupthink has been a bogeyman haunting conference rooms and focus group facilities since it was popularized in the 1970s by psychologists Irving Janis. Perhaps the greatest value Mr. Sunstein and Mr. Hastie bring is rational and systematic conversation about the topic – fear of groupthink has been a form of groupthink itself.

The four dynamics of groupthink identified in Wiser are:

1. Amplify effects: Individuals in homogeneous groups often make the same errors in their judgment, thinking and perceptions. The individuals in the group then take their shared opinions as proof points that that they are “right.” This is sometimes known as confirmation bias.

2. Cascade effects: Evaluations, conversations and decision processes follow a sequential path. If a leader or perceived expert expresses a strong opinion at the beginning it can trickle down through the rest of the group. Even when individuals don’t agree with the leader they sometimes defer to the group’s direction either out of deference to someone else’s expertise or because they don’t want to look stupid.

3. Increased polarization: When a group agrees on a subject or has the same perceptions it starts to hold its beliefs more strongly. This can be seen most clearly in the echo chambers of political talk shows and other political media outlets.

4. Focus on what everybody knows: Groups naturally drift towards consensus and begin to focus on what everyone already knows. This can cause them to overlook key pieces of information or insights that only one individual has.

Although presented here individually these dynamics are interrelated. It is easy to envision a conference room where a group of decisions makers who share the same general biases, knowledge and blind spots, follow a leader with a strong opinion and end up displaying a classic case of groupthink.

Fortunately, groupthink isn’t inevitable. Mr. Sunstein and Mr. Hastie offer a number of practical, and relatively easy to implement, steps that can help you not only avoid groupthink, but actually realize the benefits promised in expressions and concepts such as “two heads are better than one” and “the wisdom of crowds.” These are outlined in detailed in their book.

At Isurus we have used similar strategies for years to ensure that groupthink doesn’t occur in focus groups. Groupthink is a common knock against focus groups and the unfortunate reality is that many marketers have experienced focus groups that fell victim to the condition. However, we contend that groupthink results from poor moderating, group design and analysis rather than a fundamental flaw in focus groups.

The following are steps researchers should take keep groupthink from creeping into a focus group.

Be the leader and control the want-to-be leader: In business settings the most senior person in the room is viewed as the leader. When they come to a focus group they often try to take on the same role. Others – especially alpha male personalities – try to establish themselves as the de facto leader of the conversation. They can be easily identified because they typically select the seat across from the moderator. A good moderator has the interpersonal skills and strength to manage the group and the conversation – regardless of how the would-be-leaders feel.  Cascade effects also arise from group composition. Imagine a CIO in a group of IT Directors, or a leading-edge marketer in a group of late-adopters.  The group’s natural tendency is to defer to the perceived expert in the room.  In addition to effective moderation, careful management of the group’s composition can mitigate against this problem.

Prime diversity, confidence and sharing: In setting the stage for the discussion the moderator should prime the group to share their opinions.  This includes stressing that there are no right or wrong answers and that they are not looking for consensus. A savvy moderator can identify the would-be-leader and the individual who is likely to hold back their opinions and use them as an illustration, e.g. “What is right for Bob’s (the would-be-leader) situation many not be the right one for Mike (the likely deferrer). As the group introduces themselves a good moderator will highlight the difference of the group reinforcing that you expect differences of opinion to exist.

Individual exercises: In a variation of the Delphi method, before discussing topics where there may be a diversity of opinions (pain points, decision criteria, value of a new product, ad appeal) it is useful to have respondents do an individual exercise. Writing down their responses gives people more confidence in their opinions because it encourages them to articulate and document them. When the moderator asks them what they wrote down they focus on their perspective rather than simply agreeing with what was said before. Even when individuals agree thematically, the act of writing out their individual thoughts identifies nuances and differences – the things that only one person knows. It also provides a tool for a savvy moderator to probe on disconnects, e.g. “Bill, earlier you say x, but you wrote y, can you help me understand the difference there?” Lastly at the very minimum it ensures everyone in the group contributes.

Analysis: Even with these measures there will be some polarization of the data if there is general agreement in the group, e.g. they will be more or less excited about the ads than they really are. The researcher needs to examine the data holistically and make judgments and inferences about where the truth ends and the group’s reaction have started to polarize.

Within your organizations it is the responsibility of the group leader (whether that group is the board of directors or the marketing team) to take the steps to ensure that groupthink doesn’t happen. In a focus group it takes a strong moderator and well thought out design. In both cases, if you follow the principles outlined above by Mr. Sunstein, Mr. Hastie and Isurus your internal groups will provide more value and so will your focus groups.