Monday, 30 July 2012

Groupthink - How to make wrong decisions collectively

I've been studying the psychology of political groups, and I've come across an interesting and controversial phenomenon in the literature called "Groupthink." It's defined as "an irrational style of thinking that causes a group - such as the Coalition - to make bad decisions." There are certain elements of groupthink which fit well with the Coalition and its policies. For instance, it can be caused by isolation - when an issue is being discussed by a group such as the Quad, outsiders are excluded, particularly from reviewing/contributing to the group's decisions. Such a group has a definite, authoritative leader who has control over the discussions -- David Cameron -- and he discourages opinions which disagree with the party line (Hunt and Leveson).
Although group members may privately disagree, they practise self-censorship and face strong pressure to conform as there are sanctions for those who disagree (reshuffles!)
Another fascinating aspect of groupthink is the capacity for self-deception among members - they may show illusions of invulnerability or morality, and they believe that their judgements cannot be wrong - therefore there are no consequences to these decisions. This results in defective decision-making strategies which outsiders often term "fiascoes," "blunders" etc. This conjures up visions of George Osborne and his disastrous budget, with its hot food taxes and other ill-advised measures. Although groupthink is somewhat hypothetical, I like the theory and not just because I can apply it equally to the moral illusions and apparent unanimity with the public, presented to the world by Daily Mail journalists. The real question of course, is whether it can be compensated for  - for instance, by seeking the opinions of outsiders who are honest in their criticisms, and by moving out of the insulated bubble that seems to surround the Coalition these days.
Finally, it's interesting to note that groupthink is considered most likely to occur in situations of threat and stress, when groups need to rapidly make decisions to achieve major successes for pet policies -- pasty anyone?

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