Course taster

Decision-making in groups

There are several phenomena relating to group decision-making that have drawn the attention of psychologists, all of which reflect the potentially detrimental effects that can arise when decisions are made in groups. These detrimental effects include the risky-shift phenomenon, group polarisation and groupthink.

Select the following titles to reveal more details:

The risky-shift phenomenon describes the tendency for people to make decisions about risk differently when they are in a group compared to when they are alone. In a group, they are likely to make riskier decisions, due to the notion that the risk is shared.

Collins and Guetzkow (1964) suggest that high risk-takers are more confident and hence may persuade others to take greater risks (consistent with persuasive arguments theory) when in a group situation. Bateson (1966) suggests that as people pay attention to and debate a possible action, they become more familiar and comfortable with it and, as a result, perceive it as less risky (consistent with social comparison theory).

Group polarisation is another effect identified in groups, which describes the tendency for groups to come to more-extreme decisions than they would have alone. Isenberg (1986) narrowed the many explanations for group polarisation down to persuasive arguments theory and social comparison theory.

In an interesting and more recent study in relation to group dynamics and polarisation, Yardi and Boyd (2010) captured 30,000 tweets about a chosen topic (the shooting of George Tiller, a late-term abortion doctor in the USA) and the subsequent conversations among pro-life and pro-choice advocates. The interesting thing about Twitter is that people are exposed to multiple diverse points of view. Yardi and Boyd found that replies among like-minded individuals tended to strengthen group identity, while replies among different-minded individuals served to reinforce in-group and out-group affiliation. Consequently, being exposed to other viewpoints doesn't mean that people are likely to engage in meaningful conversation – it could just serve to reinforce their existing views.

It is suggested that as a group develops a close identity and sense of cohesion, it becomes vulnerable to a phenomenon called 'groupthink' (Janis, 1972). The group can become more concerned with maintaining unity than with objectively evaluating their situation, alternatives and options. Groupthink describes the tendency for groups to escalate their commitment to a decision, regardless of evidence suggesting that it might be worth considering alternatives and/or where that group has considered alternatives but made unrealistic appraisals of them. As a result of group pressure, members of the group are less likely to challenge decisions, and their ability to weigh up the alternatives objectively is compromised.

It is of course necessary to consider what tasks the team is asked to do - tasks that are mostly independent are better suited to individuals, while team tasks should be those activities that require interdependent work.

Real-world examples of groupthink include groups of people of the same racial and ethnic background who do not know any people personally who are different from them. They may distrust or dislike people who are not part of the same racial and ethnic background, due to a lack of experience of knowing such people. They will not understand different people and might look to support their belief that their group is morally superior.

Another example would be a group of employees at a company that makes a product that is becoming outdated but the employees are unwilling to consider modern alternatives to advance within the industry. They might not understand why their product is not selling and refuse to acknowledge the economic reality that they need to make changes in order to keep up with technological changes. The company is unlikely to survive if the employees cannot change their groupthink position.