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Group think

中国日报网 2013-09-17 14:53


Reader question:

Please explain “group think”, as in “the dangers of group think”.

My comments:

Group think, literally, is what the group as a whole thinks instead of what each individual member of that group thinks.

What group? You ask.

Any group, a team, a club, a task force, an army, a bandit, a religious group or political party, whatever.

As social animals, humans like to meet and congregate, and to form groups with people who share a common goal, view or outlook on life. And when a group is established, rules abound, either written or unwritten. People follow these rules expressly or tacitly.

And to preserve purity and unity of the group, individual members tend to suppress individual needs for the common good. This is perfectly understandable. Selfish as each individual is, when they’re in a group, there is pressure for them to conform, to go with where others go and do what all others do. You may call it peer pressure. And it’s real. When in a group, people tend to care and worry about what other members think. They don’t want to appear odd or disruptive. They don’t want to assert themselves too much lest others dislike them. In a group, members want to be liked rather than be tolerated. Always.

So therefore, while in a group, individual members tend to suppress their personal preferences and idiosyncrasies for the common good, or at least for keeping appearances.

So far, so good.

What about the dangers of group think?

Well, without going deep into the matter, we can easily identify the problems a group faces if it adheres too much to group think.

If it adheres too much to group think, or groupthink (one word – William H. Whyte, an American journalist, coined the word in 1952), an individual member’s initiative may suffer in consequence. As you can imagine, in a group that always emphasizes collective thought rather than individual initiative and innovation, individuals will, eventually, lose their individuality, creativity and uniqueness. Crucially, individuals may be compelled to keep their thoughts to themselves instead of airing their opinion freely. To give an extreme example, if you were a member of the Nazis in Germany during the Second World War, would you speak out in public against your party for prosecuting Jews, sending them into concentration camps and murdering them in gas chambers?

Well, you might and probably would’ve put yourself in harm’s way as a result.

What people do in circumstances like this is they usually wait and bide their time – and speak out after the tide is turned or about to turn. Unfortunately, by that time the damage of groupthink is usually done.

Anyways, you get the picture. Groupthink, in short, can be too much of a good thing.

Here are recent media examples:

1. Years ago, I was part of a merger between two public high-tech companies that ended in disaster. Turns out that executives of one company sugarcoated key aspects of their technology, and the opposing company’s CEO bought it hook, line and sinker.

Come to think of it, everyone just told each other what they wanted to hear. The result? A really bad strategic decision that never should have been made, $2 billion in losses, even more destruction of shareholder value and who knows how many lawsuits.

Why didn’t months of pre-merger due diligence uncover the truth? Because that mostly amounts to a bunch of high-priced lawyers and accountants dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s so that everyone’s covered if the deal goes south and the lawsuits start flying. Indeed, the shareholder litigation did fail, as it usually does.

I wish I could say that sort of thing is an anomaly, but it’s not. It happens all the time. In case you've ever wondered why, researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management have a theory.

The theory is that “flattery and opinion conformity” make CEOs overconfident, resulting in “biased strategic decision making” and, well, you know the rest. In other words, CEOs who surround themselves with yes-men that engage in groupthink are more likely to maintain the status quo and implement or stick with ill-conceived strategies. And of course, that’s bad news for their companies.

- The evils of yes-men and groupthink, By Steve Tobak, CBSNews.com, October 17, 2012.

2. I recently wrote a piece about parking valets, and how they were a goldmine of information for luxury car designers. One of the comments from a reader made me laugh. Then it made me think. It was from a user called D-Livs, who wrote:

I just want to know: Do you ask Wall Street doormen for financial advice?

Well, Mr or Ms Livs, the short answer is no. I’ve never met a Wall Street doorman, and was unaware of their existence until now.

But here’s why it might not be such a stupid idea.

We know that markets aren’t rational; they are driven by fear and greed.

Markets are also driven by groupthink. A small number of like-minded individuals rely on the same data to make the biggest trading decisions at bulge-bracket banks and major hedge funds.

And some of those decisions have been very, very wrong.

The banks who did best in recent years were those who looked beyond the conference rooms of Wall St and Canary Wharf.

Sweden’s Handelsbanken has weathered the financial crisis brilliantly, and has been described as ‘the most watched bank in the world.’ The Financial Times told this story about CEO Pär Boman (January 13, 2013):

Some US investment bankers came to sell Handelsbanken some mortgage-backed securities before the financial crisis that would offer 8-9 per cent in yield for, as Mr Boman terms it, “more or less no work at all”. Handelsbanken executives, led by him, visited the bankers in New York and asked to see the underlying documentation of the mortgages. That was not possible. So Mr Boman went to the west coast and visited some of the houses used in the bonds. “Then it was very clearly nothing for us,” he says simply.

Joe Kennedy, father of JFK, correctly read the sentiment of the market in 1929. He claimed he sold all his stock when he got a share tip from the shoe-shine boy. Between the crash of 1929 and 1935 his net worth soared to $2.85bn in today’s terms.

Traders and pundits measure the levels of fear and greed in the market with indices like the VIX, which measures volatility in the S&P 500. Of course, the VIX is a rear-view mirror. It can only tell you what sentiment was. If you could tell what sentiment will be before trading opens, wouldn’t that give you an edge?

Somebody who saw the faces of everybody who came in to trade every morning, for example?

- Why You Should Get Financial Advice From Wall St Doormen, By Brian Millar, Forbes.com, June 20, 2013.

3. In the Trayvon Martin case—the horrendous instance of a 17-year-old being shot in a tussle—caused emotional triggers for black Americans who remember years of lynchings, segregation and injustice. To further exacerbate matters, the present experience of people of color today in America is still unpleasant in regard to being profiled by people in law enforcement—it is unpleasant even for those who think it may be necessary—of which Zimmerman was a part despite the fact that he was merely a civilian patrol person.

All this history, combined with the initial response of the media virtually convicting Zimmerman before he had a fair hearing, ensured that people of color would be outraged if Zimmerman was found not guilty, irrespective of what kind of detail would come out in the trial. This is simply because Trayvon already became larger than life, bigger than this particular trial, when he became a post-mortem symbol of racial injustice.

Since symbols and metaphors connect to the deepest part of our emotions, reactions to said symbols are not always based on logic and fact.

Consequently, when horrific tragedies take place similar to what happened with Trayvon Martin, a few leaders—whether in media, sports, entertainment or community activism—who influence their people have the ability either to emotionally incite masses of people or create an opportunity for peaceful dialogue. To disagree would be unthinkable if you are part of this segment of the population because you would be deemed a traitor to your own people. Hence, I believe approximately 25-40 percent of the people incited may not even know or care about the details of the case. They are just identifying with their people and embracing group anger and outrage.

In reality, all of us have “drunk the Kool-Aid” of groupthink, whether we are white, black, yellow or red. This is simply because all of us have psychologically developed in certain ethnic, economic and cultural contexts that are impossible to escape. Trying to objectively separate yourself from a historic environment that has programmed your thinking is like standing inside a bucket and trying to lift yourself up. It is impossible—even for the most self-aware in the human race.

Thus, if you are Hispanic, there is some level of groupthink that will influence your view on a hot topic such as immigration. If you are a conservative white person, you will have your triggers connected to gun control and big government programs. You get the picture. This is why public-opinion polls related to the ethos of our nation are not to be trusted if they are only sampling one demographic group or culture.

- Trayvon Martin and the Power of Groupthink, CharismaNews.com, July 17, 2013.

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Go to Zhang Xin's column


About the author:

Zhang Xin(张欣) has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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