Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

Many teams tend to compromise their decisions for the sake of consensus, harmony, and “esprit de corps.” The result is often a lowest-common-denominator decision upon which everybody in the team agrees. This predisposition for a team to minimize conflict and value conformity is the psychological phenomenon of Groupthink.

'Victims of Groupthink' by Irving Janis (ISBN 0395317045) In the 1970s, American psychologist Irving Janis defined Groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Janis argued that Groupthink “undermines critical analysis, legitimizes ignorance, reinforces collective biases, and promotes a group self-image of infallibility.”

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork

Teams are prone to Groupthink and a variety of other detrimental decision-making approaches, but are seldom aware of it.

  • Groupthink suppresses dissent Individuals resign to group pressure, thereby conforming their opinions to a decision that they believe will achieve consensus. Groupthink discourages dissenters from “rocking the boat.” Over time, nonconformists are gradually shunted aside or excluded from the team altogether.
  • Groupthink engenders self-censorship. Individuals who disagree with the chosen course of action remain silent because they reason they cannot change others’ minds. Consequently, the team tends to focus its discussions on ideas that everyone agrees about rather than ideas that everyone disagrees about.
  • Groupthink gives team members greater confidence in their collective decisions than their individual decisions. Therefore, Groupthink leads individuals to publicly endorse ideas and decisions that they view as common for the group, even if they personally have reservations about them.
  • Groupthink stifles creativity and independent thinking. When individuals are unwilling to bring up and confront difficult issues, the team fails to examine alternative viewpoints that could be contentious. This leads to irrational and flawed decisions.

Antidote to Groupthink in Teamwork

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork An awareness of Groupthink and other group dynamic biases combined with some hands-on intervention, self-reflection, and control can help teams make better decisions.

  • Create an organizational environment where individuals can freely voice their ideas, challenges, and concerns. Individuals must feel comfortable with taking interpersonal risks, admitting hesitations, and challenging one-another. Absent an inclination to avoid conflict, a team can easily discuss and debate different perspectives.
  • Think about the right information required to make sound decisions. Consider the strongest counter-argument to every idea.
  • Do not suppress disagreements or dominate the dissenters. Carefully examine the reasons and implications of alternate viewpoints.
  • Divide a team into sub-teams or partnerships and set each sub-team to work on a problem independently. Encourage them to take into account the plusses and the minuses of each idea.
  • Designate one team member as a devil’s advocate to argue enthusiastically against all contemplated ideas. This can force the team to discuss and debate the concomitant merits and demerits of different ideas. In Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process (see my book summary), the devil’s advocate wears the “black hat.”
  • Invite outside consultants and subject-matter experts to discuss key issues and review decisions.
  • Appoint a moderator who can engage the team collectively and individually by gathering all points of view, giving feedback, and challenging the team’s thinking. Ideally, the moderator should be an independent third party who can be comprehensive and forthright.
  • Step back regularly from the team’s deliberation process to reflect on the effectiveness of the team’s decision-making and intervene where necessary. In the Six Thinking Hats process, De Bono suggests adding reflection time at the end of each meeting to analyze the process’ effectiveness.

Idea for Impact: Sometimes, Teamwork is Overrated

Don’t get me wrong: teamwork can be very powerful, but only when teams consist of individuals who have the right expertise and who are willing to voice their forthright opinions, dissent, and build consensus. Avoid teamwork when one person or a partnership with complementary skills and styles may achieve identical objectives.

To prevent Groupthink, establish an environment where speaking up is encouraged and rewarded. Welcome disagreements, avoid dominating dissenters, and contemplate the strongest counter-argument to every idea.

How to Stimulate Group Creativity / Book Summary of Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”

Stimulate Group Creativity Using Edward de Bono's 'Six Thinking Hats'

In his bestselling book Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono describes a powerful problem-solving approach that enriches mental flexibility by encouraging individuals and groups to attack an issue from six independent but complementary perspectives.

Edward de Bono is a leading authority in creative thinking. He is widely regarded as the father of lateral thinking. De Bono has written over 70 books on thinking and creativity.

Using the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ for Structured Brainstorming

Edward de Bono, leading authority in creative thinking and lateral thinking De Bono created the ‘six thinking hats’ method after identifying six distinct lines of human thought in problem solving. De Bono calls each approach a “hat” and assigns them different colors.

At the heart of the ‘six thinking hats’ method are six different colored hats that participants put on—literally or metaphorically—to represent the type of thinking they should concentrate on while wearing each.

  1. White is neutral, objective, and fact-based. A white hat is concerned with objective data: “What information do we have? What information do we need? What information are we missing? How can get the information we need? What objective questions should be asked?”
  2. Red denotes passion, anger, intuition, and emotions. A red hat considers the emotional side of problem solving, which is often neglected or masked in meetings: “What are our gut reactions to the matter at hand?”
  3. Black is somber, serious, and cautious. A black hat is vigilant, plays devil’s advocate, and encourages derogatory and judgmental behavior: “what are the weaknesses of these ideas? What are the risks? What could go wrong?”
  4. Yellow represents positive thinking, hope, and optimism to counteract the black hat’s power. A yellow hat plays “the angel’s advocate” and is cheerful and confident: “What are the best-case scenarios? What are the best aspects of this? What are the advantages? Who can benefit from this?”
  5. Green signifies abundance, growth, richness, and fertility. A green hat is the hat of creativity; it rejects established rules and norms, and invents new approaches: “What are some new ideas on this subject? What is interesting about this idea? What are the variances in these ideas?”
  6. Blue represents the sky and therefore provides the overarching perspective. A blue hat performs “meta thinking” and is concerned with the organization of the thinking process and the use of other hats. The blue hat synthesizes and reconciles different viewpoints. At the start of a brainstorming session, the blue hat sets the stage for where the discussion may go. The blue hat guides and sustains the discussion, often restating its purposes: “What are we thinking about? What is the goal? What should we do next? What have we achieved so far? What should we do to achieve more?” At the conclusion of the brainstorming session, the blue hat appraises the discussion, and proposes a plan of action.

Use De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats Model for Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

'Six Thinking Hats' by Edward de Bono (ISBN 0316178314) An individual working alone may use the approach to consider broader, distinct lines of thought. By changing hats, the individual can switch viewpoints and ensure that he/she is not stuck in specific thinking patterns.

However, the approach is best suited to group discussions (when chaired by a skilled facilitator) in which conflicting ideas may never otherwise be fully synthesized into plans of action. By persuading each participant to think constructively alongside other participants, the ‘six thinking hats’ method taps into group members’diverse perspectives and uses their collective knowledge without destructive conflict.

Using these hats nurtures creativity by letting participants step beyond their typical roles and contribute to developing, organizing, and progressing ideas. Participants can also identify how their cognitive state at any one time shapes how they approach problems.

Recommendation: Read. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats presents a very effective technique for stimulating group creativity. The method can remove mental blocks, organize ideas and information, foster cross-fertilization, and help conduct thinking sessions more productively than do other brainstorming methods.

Complement with Dan Ciampa’s Taking Advice for an excellent framework on the kind of advice network you need on strategic, operational, political, and personal elements of your work and life. Read my summary in this article.