The word groupthink has been coined to describe a common phenomenon in which a desire for harmony overrides a realistic analysis of alternatives. This emphasis on maintaining the group’s cohesion and togetherness can result in bad decisions, because differing points of view are not expressed. The description of the kind of group most susceptible to groupthink sounds like the definition of a flight crew — a cohesive, task-oriented, problem-solving group isolated from conflicting opinions, with an open and directive leader and a lack of any formal decision-making process.
Some of the indications of groupthink are also typical of flight crews:
• Feelings of Invulnerability — Invulnerability is one of the hazardous attitudes that is common among pilots. This tendency toward invulnerability in flight crew members can be strengthened if crew members don’t want to be seen as being weak or afraid.
• Pressure to Perform — Flight crews often experience pressure from management, customers and other crew members to get to the destination on time.
• Collective Efforts to Rationalize or Discount Warnings — Many of my articles, including last month’s article on confirmation bias, have dealt with the tendency of pilots to discount or ignore obvious warning signs. In a crew situation, this tendency can be reinforced as one pilot convinces the other pilot that an evident risk factor is nothing to worry about.
• Not Speaking Up — Even though one or more crew members think the crew is headed down a wrong and perhaps dangerous path, they may not speak up to avoid upsetting the group’s cohesiveness, because they think the others will get mad at them and ostracize them, or simply because they don’t feel they will be able to consider any other factors and still depart on time.
• The Illusion of Agreement — With one or more people holding back on expressing their true feelings and opinions, a false illusion of agreement can develop.
• Discounting Contrary Viewpoints — If someone such as a flight service briefer or air traffic controller expresses an opinion or provides information that is contrary to the group’s desired outcome, group members may attempt to discredit that person or viewpoint.
Swayed by Others
How strong is the tendency toward groupthink? Studies have demonstrated that a significant percentage of people will give an answer that is clearly wrong because that is what they believe a group of people they don’t even know thinks. When asked later why they picked the wrong answer, many said it was because the group pressured them into doing so, but in reality, no one else said anything other than their answer. Merely observing others choose the wrong answer led the test subjects to feel pressured to do so also.
If test subjects in a room with a few people they don’t even know feel pressured to pick the wrong answer even though no one said anything to pressure them, imagine how hard it can be to speak up in the face of overt pressure from a fellow pilot, let alone the captain, chief pilot or CEO. If the senior person has a very domineering or controlling attitude, or comes across that way, that would make it even harder to speak up, especially for someone who is more submissive and has a hard time standing up to a dominant personality style.
While a group of people who are very similar can easily fall into groupthink, a group of very different people are not immune to this tendency. For example, it has been shown that the amount of risk we are willing to accept is to a certain extent genetically determined. At one extreme are people who are very risk adverse.