I've seen cases where you actually lack all of the things listed here, and they are groups which are never able to agree on a course of action, or cooperate to achieve anything. You call it either "agreement" or "groupthink" depending on whether it turns out to be good or not.
Which means, that a list of "symptoms" like this will not help you to discover in advance whether the group in question has a problem, which is what is actually needed. It's something that can give you the comforting illusion of being able to detect groupthink ("it won't happen to me"), without in fact helping you actually notice when the group you're part of is heading off in the wrong direction.
I don't believe this, and I've engaged in processes where this was not the case (albeit on a relatively small scale).
Requirements for effective consensus without self-censorship are:
1. a strict, ordered and budgeted process for airing views. Your cacophony only occurs without such process (such cacophony also leads to a different form of censorship, simply by "survival of the loudest").
2. a deliberative decision making process: the best way to alienate (and encourage self-censorship in) someone is to assign finality to decisions they oppose. It's also the best way to delay decisions. Controversial decisions can be expedited if there isn't perceived to be a barrier to reconsidering them later.
Or to put it a different way: people who don't agree with a direction an org takes are more likely to remain committed to that org if their later "I told you so"s are taken on board.
It seems that "group-think" is more about agreement than consensus. An insistence on agreement silences opposing views. A search for consensus entertains them all but recognizes the need for a group decision to be reached.
Well put. I think a lot of the stigma around the word consensus comes from undertaking it without this understanding. A.K.A. design-by-committee, etc.
ALL of them? How about:
- Outgroup stereotypes?
- Self-appointed mind guards to insulate leadership from challenging ideas?
- Illusion of unanimity?
I don't see how any of those are necessary for consensus. Same for self-censorship really. One can voice disagreement with a course of action and then agree to go down it anyway to be a team player. People do this all the time.
Yes, and at the point you stop repeating your disagreement, you have begun to self-censor. People who say everything they think, are described as "having no filter". The difference between "self-censoring" and "having no filter", is whether you think it's a good idea or not. Groups where those opposed to an idea do not, at some point, stop saying so, do not cooperate well.
Which is not to say that it isn't often a bad thing that they stop saying so. However, knowing whether it counts as "self-censoring", requires knowledge of whether their criticisms are well-founded, rather than providing that knowledge.
Absolutely not and even making this comment seems indicative of really unhealthy communication dynamics in a team. Censorship is specifically suppression of statements due to concerns about their political consequences.
Simply not being a curmudgeon who keeps griping about decision long after it has been made. That's just called being a productive member of a team. The point of team communication is to accomplish a task up to standard, not to ejaculate personal commentary about whatever happens. The article is specifically talking about censorship of perspectives that have a material impact of outcomes during decision points.
At what point is choosing not to repeat yourself not self-censorship? If there is no such point, I'd say the term defined this way is meaningless.
this one I can see in a consensus environment. At some point it's not useful when people keep questioning the decided upon course of action and it may be necessary to stop listening to them.
The work in large organizations is to achieve outcomes within the broken and inconsistent rules of their internal logic, so as to preserve the integrity of them, and not the outcomes themselves. The essence of being a geek, nerd, or technologist is to focus on the outcomes and problem solving to achieve them, whereas the essence of being typical is to be a working part of the system to sustain it, independent of it's outcomes.
Warren Buffett said, "I try to invest in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them. Because sooner or later, one will."
To me, the point of a startup is to defect from these dissonance machines and create something people actually want. Viewed this way, a startup is not a business. It's like an anti-business that gets absorbed by a business and releases stored potential revenue in the collision.
Groupthink might be more of a sign than a problem. It's possible that it is a sign of the growth stage of a business and whether it's ready to absorb something, or just be hollowed out in some long term private equity cost optimization hell.
The "self-sustance" of the system is insanity akin to chopping down walls for firewood, never building new ones (while inefficient that would at least be a way of wear cycling) and then once they are left on a dirt lot bemoaning it was unforeseeable yet inevitable.
I worked for a few years at Shell though and now I'm wary of ever working for a large corporation again. The sweet spot I've found is mid-sized companies, where they're small enough where they can't just absorb the costs of useless software projects, but big enough where there isn't the mad scramble to ship. (I've never worked for a startup, though, so apologies if that's an unfair characterization.)
I didn't find them that bad tbh, I think that there's good parts and bad parts in all monsters like Shell - my take was that their size, heritage and criticality to the global economy has resulted in them developing certain bureaucratic traits akin to a governmental civil service, but even with that said they do some amazing stuff (which most civil services cannot get anywhere near) - and I worked with probably the smartest IT pros I've met in my career. They operate a massive global IT infrastructure at scale and they do it pretty well, with some aspects being indisputably world-leading.
Probably my main problem was I worked for the data management department where the most experienced people were semi-technical and had geoscience backgrounds. Intelligent people, but internal software tools were still very new to them and many were still doing things they did in the 80s.
I guess all I want to say is that damaging groupthink is easy to spot in hindsight but that well functioning organizations also rely on groupthink. And that it’s quite hard to distinguish between positive and necessary groupthink and negative groupthink.
Groupthink is specifically about when people stop thinking individually, and take the group's position to be correct-by-default. Consensus and common goals can be achieved without that assumption.
Groupthink, in software architecture, happens when we can no longer question the basis for a design or assumption. Perhaps the design made perfect sense once, but now we're trying to scale to 1000+ servers, not just 5-10. Communication overhead is killing us, groupthink promotes (for too long, ultimately to the detriment of the business and its customers) the idea that the architecture is beyond question. Consensus and common goals are different. If the architecture is limiting the business, then that can be an agreed upon idea, but not actionable yet. Maybe we realize that other things need to be addressed first (our build system, CI/CD pipelines, testing systems) in order to make architecture updates even feasible.
Groupthink would deny even addressing those concerns because they still won't accept that the architecture is limiting the business.
To use a cliche combat context it is like loyalty effectively. There may be questions of whether to attack from the woods or an open field with tank support and working together is more important than one or another as even the situational "wrong" choice is better than a split effort.
However absolute blind loyalty ends only in needless tears from trying to shoot tanks with pistols, charging the no man's land into machine guns, massacre of villages, or military coups.
The dangerous aspect is the "delusion" in both.
I can tell you from experience, it's not a place that runs on "groupthink", or "consensus" views. A decision is made by a decision maker, and that decision is implemented. In the military they even have the "mind guards" that "insulate leadership from criticism" that were mentioned in another comment. Only in the military, we call them "NCO's".
You can be diametrically opposed to a decision in the military if you like. Heck, you can think whatever you want in the military, because no one cares what you think.
Groupthink isn’t mere agreement, but specifically agreement contrary to the professional (not personal) options of informed experts.
“It’s not my first choice, but it will do” isn’t, I think, in that category.
It is possible to be wrong and not be engaged in groupthink or right and lacking logical basis.
Like consuming dietary cholesterol causing high blood cholesterol?
Or trans fats being healthier than saturated fats?
Or tariffs harming the US economy?
People can be "informed" about something and still need to shut-up about it, when it's politically incorrect / represents a unpopular view, when it puts their income / reputation at risk, etc.
Experts have more to lose, so they are especially vulnerable to this sort of pressure.
I'm just talking about obvious reasonable behavior here. For instance, experts probably agree that nuclear radiation causes cancer. It would not be sensible to believe that nuclear radiation doesn't cause cancer and then expose people to that radiation, believing it's harmless just because experts are at risk of being corrupted.
I suspect all of them could be view as anti-patterns. For example:
- frequent dissent
- group frequently breaks ranks when new facts emerge
- lack of confidence
- lack of a clearly-defined enemy
- lack of consistent message/frequent flip-flopping
It seems likely that some aspects of groupthink are essential for any collective action. Without it, people can't or won't work together. With too much, the group makes mistakes no individual would have made.
I've never been unpopular and I'm the kind of guy to make friends with individuals in various groups, but I've always been allergic to cliques.
Whenever I find myself part of an in-group that's rapidly converging on groupthink, I get deeply uncomfortable and don't last long there. When I'm on the periphery of a rapidly coalescing clique, I often find myself becoming the outspoken outsider.
I just can't stand people agreeing on everything -- I've got to play the contrarian. Universal agreement just doesn't seem safe or comfortable.
I feel I have a natural resistance to groupthink and it's a huge liability. Most people seem to love forming into tribes.
And frankly, how do you stop the ever-present march of groupthink? I guess key is creating a culture where respectful disagreement is encouraged and expected, where people can openly admit to being wrong without losing face.
I suspect the easiest fix on a personal level is ironically self-selection but certain things are known to exacerbate groupthink like the sense of a threat - annoyingly completely separate from /actual/ threats.
But sometimes they believe so strongly in their own biases and preconceptions that it is deeply frustrating.
For instance, there are some who believe in the gospel of whiteboard interviews and when you try to discuss things like individual variation and how the process could be mostly random, their minds are completely closed.
Honestly, I don't encounter these sorts of problems nearly as often with people who have had liberal arts educations... but then again, I don't debate those sorts of people online like I do with programmers. Maybe it's just people are more confident in arguing their opinions when they're anonymous.
I can't tell if we are getting better or worse on that front. The attention economy and social media might have accidentally turned people into various giant bubbles, making it increasingly more difficult to find common patterns to agree on. Everyone all has different opinions on thousands of tiny different things. People in the past did not face this problem, the society of yesterday was a much more simple place with fewer variables, so groupthink was probably a lot more common.
Diversity is the obvious answer to counter groupthink, but managing diversity effectively is in itself another challenge. This is a modern problem of today and will become even bigger tomorrow.
Other than alignment, a safe environment for everyone to operate in as you have suggested is absolutely fundamental. Human will always have the tendency to attach labels to everything, it's the natural way for our brain to create patterns and make sense of the world around us. Without those patterns, we can't operate effectively either.
In that sense, the only way to counter that is to anonymize informational sources during internal meetings and data collection processes so people can't attach labels and link it to specific sources - people don't like to admit it but we all do this unconsciously. That way the data will be free from prejudices and biases since all sources are being given equal weight in consideration.
Organizations should run pilot programs to test this on their decision-making process. It should be easy to achieve with many tools available today.
Applying the "grey zone" mental model is also important here, as it constantly forces us to consider the pros and cons and weight everything in probability calculation - there is not a clearly right or wrong position in many cases.
Another method is by encouraging each group member to seek out two to three other directly or secondary related topics by themselves (so there is a higher chance for a more random selection which should yield better accuracy), and then asking each person to make a summary on the areas they had chosen, and to further explain their idea on why they have established those critical connections with the main topic. This way, it may foster the discovery of new patterns based on arbitrary links that no other individuals had ever thought of before.
We're all, kind of, members of the People's Front of Judea. (Except, of course, for those of us who are members of the Judean People's Front.)
I commented on this before. Basically, most of us are rebellious in almost exactly the same manner as every other "rebellious" person. Same taglines. Same clothes. Same beliefs. Same pass times. Etc etc etc. We've all become the brooding teenager, who believes him or herself to be unique and counter cultural. Yet somehow that teen still looks, sounds and dresses like every other unique and counter cultural teenager on the planet.
As humans, we haven't really come up with a way to escape groupthink. That fact has got me wondering if groupthink is simply a facet not so much of human behavioral psychology, but rather a facet almost of evolutionary behavior? Something we can't tear ourselves away from, because it's literally who we are? We basically only choose which group we are part of, whether or not we're aware of it.
In many ways, groupthink can be enormously useful. In a sense, universities, books, and other knowledge dissemenation mediums exist to solidify useful groupthink. Maybe one guy comes up with some small piece of math, another guy on the other side of the world comes up with another piece, and everyone makes their various contributions until someone comes along and rolls it together into theory that advances the world.
People who don't think like the group are reformed or weeded out so everyone understands how to "properly" study the world and you don't end up with a bunch of cranks coming up with intellectually lazy speculations.
So that's good groupthink (but people don't call it groupthink, because groupthink is generally considered to be the negative version of that). The problem is when groupthink becomes detached from reality.
But back to your original point: no, if I'm part of a larger group and I start to disagree with them because I think they are wrong, that does not make me part of a group. It's just me. I could organize a group of dissenters and form a critical mass to change the group, but that's not typically what I do.
Furthermore, the argument that "everyone is unique like you" to criticize counter-cultural movements is attacking a strawman. Maybe unintelligent teenagers think they're radically unique. But counter-cultural movements are very much groups. Humans work best in groups. We think best in groups. No one can accomplish very much alone.
All the thoughts I have, and all the thoughts you have, are plucked from the ether of the prevailing beliefs of our times. I can explain to you my personal philosophy, and you could sit down and trace my intellectual lineage if you really wanted to. You could observe how I picked the belief I'm arguing for after reading Carl Sagan at 16. He got it reading some other guy who got it from Schopenhauer or something. Maybe some of my Baptist upbringing is sprinkled in too, which comes from the Bible, in a line of intellectual descent that can be traced back to Zoroastrianism and beyond.
In the meantime, there are a thousand other youngish programmer dudes who read the same books that I did, and we talk to each other on the internet and reach group consensus. We bounce ideas off of each other and bring each other in line -- just as we're doing to each other at this very moment, on this very forum.
People who think they're radically unique are wrong. We're social animals. But that doesn't mean having the courage to dissent isn't important.
I would like to juxtapose it with the current sway of moral relativism - It is okay for you but not okay for others. Where does one draw the line between an absolute moral code and an opinion.
this one is interesting.
Most folks in tech can grok that Laziness can be a virtue.
However, modern society has perverted the image this trait reflects to appear somehow inferior to "hard work."
We live in a society where we are raised to "endure" adulthood. It definitely doesn't have to be like this now. Whether it did in order to achieve the tech at hand is a lovely debate to be had... if only more people could hear the opportunity is literally pounding at the door begging to come in.
Wishful thinking anyway...`
Apparently people really like groupthink, it increases engagement.
Suppose you‘d want to determine who among a group of entrants in a beauty is the most beautiful according to standards shared by the group. Such determinations are hard to make, as every judge would usually vote according to their private norms of beauty, not the groups. One way to overcome this, would be to give a price to the two judges who are closest to the final result. In this setup, you‘d be incentivized to vote according to the norms you believe to be the overall group norm, not your individual norm. The result would be „the groups belief about what the group sees as beautiful“.
Social media such reddit and Facebook incorporates this concepts on two levels:
- At the user level, users aiming to gather likes/karma/... are incentivized to submit content they believe the group finds most useful. Of course this is why we instate voting systems in the first place, so that great content (according to the communities standard for such) is submitted. On the other hand, this incentive scheme drives unpopular opinions to the margins. Hence, fringe content is more likely to be found on sites without a like system such as image boards. There, a different incentive exists: survival of your post directly depends on engagement, so it‘s more likely to stay afloat if it’s provocative.
- Then, at the platform level, sites faced with the decision of what to show their users, also face a beauty contest: they select what is most likely to be liked. The perverse result is an eternal perpetuation of groupthink, as contributors facing a „likability selection“ are unfree in what they submit. If it’s deemed not controversial enough/not likable enough, they will wither away. So they keep perpetuating the ever same content and jokes.
Karma is a very poor proxy for post or poster value because it's cumulative.
Example: Stackoverflow has no way to distinguish between a poor post and a good post that's too recent to have acquired many upvotes. Likewise karma provides no useful distinction between someone who has been posting for years and someone who has just joined. (Also applies to Reddit and HN.)
In fact markets are perfect examples of Keynesian groupthink. The goal of most investment decisions isn't to assess intrinsic value or potential, but to second guess how everyone else in the market will estimate their ability to profit from collective average estimates of value/potential.
This leads to investment distortions where investors would rather chase potential unicorns - because of the explosive IPO potential - than invest in unexciting but solid businesses with stable but undramatic growth prospects.
But what other resource than the crowd is readily available to curate?
Non curated public discussions are absolute garbage, so I'll take a flawed curation over none every time.
Also, give people a vote budget so they think about whether they really need to vote. Maybe 5 votes per day. For whatever reason I can only write 5 posts per day here, so I try to use them wisely. Same should go for votes.
In any case, the number of points for a particular post is only visible to the author of that post, so even if a post has a large number of upvotes, it won't really stand out other than being close to the top of the main thread (or subthread).