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Why Brainstorming Is Worthless, and Groupthink Is Dangerous

How group work often leads to bad decisions.

Key points

  • Despite the hype, group brainstorming is often ineffective.
  • As social animals, humans are more influenced by others than we realize.
  • This often leads to less creative and useful ideas than we might have come up with on our own.
Per Lööv/Unsplash
Source: Per Lööv/Unsplash

In his 1942 book How To Think Up, advertising executive Alex Osborn presented his idea for a technique he called “brainstorming,” a process in which participants share ideas free of criticism and have the opportunity to build on other participants' ideas. Osborn’s idea had a huge impact on the corporate world—then and now. The problem, according to Susan Cain, is that “group brainstorming doesn’t actually work.”

In her acclaimed book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, Cain wrote of a 1963 study which found that research participants produced more ideas when they worked alone than as a group and produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually.

Further—Cain explained—a significant body of research in the nearly half-century since has continued to confirm the worthlessness of group brainstorming. One study showed that group brainstorming outcomes become increasingly worse as group sizes increase.

Organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham concluded, “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

However, Cain clarified there is one exception: online brainstorming. Research has demonstrated that when group brainstorming occurs online, it not only has better outcomes than individual brainstorming but has increasingly better outcomes the larger the group is.

Why does online group brainstorming work better?

Perhaps it works better for introverts, and so collectively, it works better for all. This is not completely clear.

Psychologists have offered three popular explanations for the failures of group brainstorming, according to Cain:

1. Social loafing — “in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work.”

2. Production blocking — “only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively.”

3. Evaluation apprehension — “the fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers.”

Christina@wocintechchat/Unsplash
Source: Christina@wocintechchat/Unsplash

Those explanations have merit. Yet a 2005 experiment by neuroscientist Gregory Berns at Emory University resulted in this stunning finding: “groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too.”

The experiment showed group members two different three-dimensional objects on a computer screen and asked participants to decide whether the first object could be rotated to match the second. The results: “when volunteers played the game on their own, they gave the wrong answer only 13.8 percent of the time. But when they played with a group whose members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41 percent of the time.”

Cain reflected, “It’s not that you’re saying consciously, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.’ Nor are you saying, ‘I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.’ No, you are doing something much more unexpected—and dangerous. Most of Bern’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because ‘they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.’ They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.”

When we work in groups, it can be extremely difficult to discern what an individual actually thinks about something.

This is because we are social animals, and in groups, we are being observed. In research, the “observer effect” is a phenomenon whereby people tend to change their behavior when they know they are being observed. The reality is, whether we notice or not, that this effect occurs all the time within group work.

And who is, therefore, doing much, if not a consistent majority, of the influencing in group work: the most assertive talkers.

In a research paper published by the University of Missouri School of Law, professor John Lande remarked, “Teams don’t make room for introverts’ cautious analysis, and this may result in organizations making bad decisions.”

Antenna/Unsplash
Source: Antenna/Unsplash

In Quiet, Cain declared, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” In an interview for Scientific American, she concluded, “This is not to say that we should abolish group work. But we should use it a lot more judiciously than we do today.”

In a more ominous, prophetic passage in Quiet, Cain reflected on findings by Gregory Berns and his research team at Emory, who found that when individuals picked a right answer despite peer influence to the contrary, these participants experienced heightened activation in their amygdala, an almond-shaped nucleus in the brain’s medial temporal lobe associated with upsetting emotions. Berns referred to this as “the pain of independence.”

In other words, powerful, primitive, and unconscious neural forces factor critically into the phenomenon of groupthink, a phenomenon occurring when the desire for harmony with or conformity to a group results in irrational and even dysfunctional decision-making.

There is a delicate equilibrium between group cohesion and independent thinking. Ultimately, as group dynamics shape our perceptions, and when it is painful to decide and stand for what we think is right, then our collective capacity for sound judgment and innovative thinking is hampered.

There is no synergy where there is primarily homogeneity. On a broader scale, the health of our civic life is vulnerable. While independence of thought is not in and of itself a virtue, when it finds safe harbor in the course of group process, its value can be transformative. Where it cannot, the risks of groupthink become not only a liability, but potentially, a grave danger.

References

Berns, G. S., Chappelow, J., Zink, C. F., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skurski, M. E., & Richards, J. (2005). Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation. Biological Psychiatry 58(3): pp. 245-253.

Berns, G. (2008). Iconoclast: A neuroscientist reveals how to think differently. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Blakeslee, S. (2005, June 28). What other people say may change what you see. The New York Times.

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown Publishers.

Cook, G. (2012, January 24). The power of introverts: A manifesto for quiet brilliance. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-introverts/.

Lande, J. (2022, June 2). Introversion, the legal profession, and dispute resolution. University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series.

Osborn, A. F. (1942) How to think up. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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