Groupthink

When I do a mini-lecture on Groupthink I unpack the case study from the Cuban Missile crisis.

Social psychologist Irving Janis coined the term Groupthink in 1972 to describe what happens when a leader is surrounded by folks who agree with her unquestionably—even when she is wrong.

Janis speculated that when President John F. Kennedy and his team were deciding how to invade Cuba, those who disagreed with the plan were silenced, leading to a Groupthink phenomenon where detractors—who have valid ideas—are discouraged from disagreeing.

But disagreement can actually make for better solutions.

Fast-forward to science scribe Jonah Lehrer’s article this week (30 January 2012) on Groupthink for a fresh perspective on team communication, creativity and dispute.

Lehrer punches holes in the notion that creativity is nurtured when a group of thinkers gets together and ponders some solution in a so-called brainstorming session. The discussion has to follow one important rule: no one can detract from the lesson by criticizing an idea.

The theory is that criticism will prevent creative thinking.

The approach was popularized by John Osborn of BBDO (an advertising agency) who wrote the book Your Creative Power. Managers were quick to pick up Osborn’s ideas and envelope them as management techniques for the next 60 years.

But Lehrer says that when you prevent detractors from disagreeing with your ideas, you don’t get brainstorming: you get Groupthink.

Lehrer provides empirical evidence to demonstrate that when you allow a group of thinkers to unfurl ideas, including challenges to those ideas, you get a better, more creative outcome.

That’s reminiscent of teaching.

When I lecture, students are less likely to dispute ideas. But in a seminar setting, which encourages discussion and disagreement, conversations are richer. Brighter. Kinetic.

The dynamics of a close-knit group of students challenging ideas takes its own journey, leading to fresh ideas.

In other words, challenging one another (in a respectful way, of course) brightens us.

Image from http://fromdarknesstolight-somoteitbe.blogspot.com/2011/11/just-one-black-ball.html

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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