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Group Decisions: How Groups Blend Individual Choices
decision rule A rule
A decision rule is a rule about how many members must agree before the group can
concerning the number of
reach a decision. Decision rules set the criteria for how individual choices will be blended
members of a group who must
into a group product or decision (Pritchard & Watson, 1992). Two common decision
agree before a group can
rules are majority rule (the winning alternative must receive more than half the votes) reach a decision.
and unanimity rule (consensus, all members must agree).
Social Psychology

Groups will ¬nd a decision rule that leads to good decisions and stick with that
rule throughout the life cycle of the group (Miller, 1989). The majority rule is used in
most groups (Davis, 1980). The majority dominates both through informational social
in¬‚uence”controlling the information the group uses (Stasser, Kerr, & Davis, 1989)”
and through normative social in¬‚uence”exerting the groupʼs will through conformity
A unanimity rule, or consensus, forces the group to consider the views of the minor-
ity more carefully than a majority rule. Group members tend to be more satis¬ed by a
unanimity rule, especially those in the minority, who feel that the majority paid attention
and considered their point of view (Hastie, Penrod, & Pennington, 1983).
The decision rule used by a group may depend on what kind of task the group is
working on. When the group deals with intellective tasks”problems for which there is a
de¬nitive correct answer, such as the solution to an equation”the decision rule is truth
wins. In other words, when one member of the group solves the problem, all members
(who have mathematical knowledge) recognize the truth of the answer. If the problem
has a less de¬nitively correct answer, such as, say, the solution to a word puzzle, then
the decision rule is that truth supported wins. When one member comes up with an
answer that the others support, that answer wins (Kerr, 1991).
When the group deals with judgmental tasks”tasks that do not have a demonstra-
bly correct answer, such as a jury decision in a complex case”then the decision rule is
majority wins (Laughlin & Ellis, 1986). That is, whether the formal decision rule (the
one the judge gives to the jury) is unanimity or a 9 out of 12 majority (a rule common
in some states), a decision usually is made once the majority rule has been satis¬ed.
Even if the formal rule is unanimity, all jurors tend to go along with the majority once
9 or 10 of the 12 jurors agree.

The Goodness of Decision Rules
Hastie and Kameda (2005) considered a number of group decision rules to determine
which are best in reaching an accurate decision under conditions in which the correct
answer is uncertain. For example, in the world of political decision making, we may ¬nd
decision-making rules involving either democratic or dictatorial options. Democratic
decision rules may involve a plurality rule, in which the winner of an election is the
one who gets the most votes when no one has more than 50% of all votes cast, or a
majority rule in which the one with more than 50% wins. This is contrasted with a dic-
tatorial system (one “best” member decides). In contrast, nondemocratic systems often
are, in essence, a “best member” rule; that is, the leader decides. Hastie and Kamedaʼs
cogent analysis shows that most of the time the plurality rules give the most adaptive
outcomes”that is, the outcomes that best favor the members of the group. In fact, both
majority rule and plurality rule perform quite well most of the time in helping groups
determine the most accurate decision (Hastie & Kameda, 2005).

Group Polarization
A commonplace event observed in group decision making is that groups tend to polar-
group polarization ize. Group polarization (Moscovici & Zavalloni, 1969; Myers & Lamm, 1976) occurs
The tendency for individual, when the initial-decision tendency of the group becomes more extreme following group
prediscussion opinion to
discussion. For example, researchers asked French students about their attitudes toward
become more extreme
Americans, which prior to group discussion had been negative (Moscovici & Zavalloni,
following group discussion.
1969). After group discussion, researchers measured attitudes again and found that group
discussion tended to polarize, or pull the attitude to a more extreme position. The initial
negative attitudes became even more negative after discussion.
Chapter 8 Group Processes 307

In another study, researchers found that if a jury initially was leaning in the direc-
tion of innocence, group discussion led to a shift to leniency. If, on the other hand, the
jury was initially leaning in the direction of guilt, there was a shift to severity (Myers &
Lamm, 1976). Group polarization can also be recognized in some of the uglier events
in the real world. Groups of terrorists become more extreme, more violent, over time
(McCauley & Segal, 1987). Extremity shifts, as we have seen, appear to be a normal
aspect of group decision making (Blascovich & Ginsburg, 1974).
Why does group polarization occur? Researchers have focused on two processes
in group discussion: social comparison and persuasive arguments. Group discussion,
as we have seen, provides opportunities for social comparison. We cannot compare
how we think with how everyone else thinks. We might have thought that our private
decision favored a daring choice, but then we ¬nd that other people took even riskier
stands. This causes us to rede¬ne our idea of riskiness and shift our opinion toward
more extreme choices.
The second cause of group polarization is persuasive arguments (Burnstein, 1982;
Burnstein & Vinokur, 1977). We already have seen that people tend to share informa-
tion they hold in common. This means that the arguments put forth and supported are
those the majority of group members support. The majority can often persuade others to
accept those arguments (Myers & Lamm, 1975). For example, most people in Kennedyʼs
advisory group spoke in favor of a military response to Cuba and persuaded doubters
of their wisdom.
Research supports the idea that discussion polarizes groups. In one early study on
the risky shift, group meetings were set up under several conditions (Wallach & Kogan,
1965). In some groups, members merely exchanged information about their views by
passing notes; there was no discussion, just information exchange. In others, individu-
als discussed their views face-to-face. In some of the discussion groups, members
were required to reach consensus; in others, they were not. The researchers found that
group discussion, with or without reaching consensus, was the only necessary and suf-
¬cient condition required to produce the risky shift. The mere exchange of information
without discussion was not enough, and forcing consensus was not necessary (Wallach
& Kogan, 1965).

The late Irving Janis (1972, 1982) carried out several post hoc (after-the-fact) analy-
ses of what he terms historical ¬ascos. Janis found common threads running through
groupthink A group-process
these decision failures. He called this phenomenon groupthink, “a mode of thinking
phenomenon that may lead
that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the
to faulty decision making by
membersʼ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise
highly cohesive group members
alternative courses of actions” (Janis, 1982, p. 9). Groupthink is a breakdown in the more concerned with reaching
rational decision-making abilities of members of a cohesive group. As we have seen, consensus than with carefully
members of a highly cohesive group become motivated to reach unanimity and protect considering alternative courses
of action.
the feelings of other group members and are less concerned with reaching the best
In examining poor decisions and ¬ascos, we have to acknowledge the bene¬ts we
gain from hindsight. From our privileged point of view here in the present, we can see
what we believe to be the fatal ¬‚aws of many decisions of the past, especially those
with disastrous outcomes. This is obviously dangerous from a scienti¬c perspective
(a danger that Janis recognized). It can lead us to overstate the power of groupthink
processes. What would have happened, for example, if the invasion of Cuba had been
Social Psychology

a rousing success and a democratic government installed there? How many historical
decisions had all the markings of groupthink but led to good outcomes? It is important
to keep a sense of perspective as we apply concepts such as groupthink to both histori-
cal and contemporary events.

Conditions That Favor Groupthink
Social psychologist Clark McCauley (1989) identi¬ed three conditions that he believed
are always involved when groupthink occurs:

1. Group insulation. The decision-making group does not seek analysis and
information from sources outside the group.
2. Promotional leadership. The leader presents his or her preferred solution to the
problem before the group can evaluate all the evidence.
3. Group homogeneity. Groups that are made up of people of similar background
and opinions are prone to have similar views.
These three antecedents, according to McCauley, lead the group to a premature

Symptoms of Groupthink
Groups that suffer from groupthink show a fairly predictable set of symptoms. Unlike
the antecedent conditions just discussed, which increase the likelihood of groupthink,
the symptoms protect the group against negative feelings and anxieties during the deci-
sion process. Janis (1972) de¬ned several major symptoms of groupthink.

1. The illusion of invulnerability. Group members believe that nothing can hurt
them. For example, of¬cials at NASA suffered from this illusion. In the 25
space ¬‚ights before Challenger exploded, not one astronaut was lost in a space-
launch mission. Even when there was a near disaster aboard Apollo 13, NASA
personnel were able to pull the ¬‚ight out of the ¬re and bring the three astronauts
home safely. This track record of extraordinary success contributed to a belief
that NASA could do no wrong. Another example of this illusion can be seen
in the decision on how to defend Pearl Harbor, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Prior to
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, advisors to the U.S. commander
believed that Pearl Harbor was invincible. Typically, this illusion leads to
excessive optimism: The group believes that anything it does will turn out for
the better.
2. Rationalization. Group members tend not to realistically evaluate information
presented to them. Instead, they engage in collective efforts to rationalize away
damaging information. For example, prior to the space shuttle Challenger
exploding in 1986, of¬cials apparently rationalized away information about the
O-rings, whose failure caused the explosion. Negative information about the
O-rings dating back as far as 1985 was available but ignored. Six months before
the disaster, a NASA budget analyst warned that the O-rings were a serious
problem. His warning was labeled an “overstatement.”
Chapter 8 Group Processes 309

3. Stereotyped views. If group members see the enemy as too weak, evil, or stupid
to do anything about the groupʼs decision, they are displaying a stereotyped
view of that enemy. An enemy need not be a military or other such foe. The
enemy is any person or group that poses a threat to a groupʼs emerging decision.
The enemy in the Challenger decision was the group of Thiokol scientists
and engineers who recommended against the launch. These individuals were
characterized as being too concerned with the scienti¬c end of things. In fact,
one engineer was told to take off his engineerʼs hat and put on his management
hat. The implication here is that engineers are too limited in their scope.
4. Conformity pressures. We have seen that majority in¬‚uences can operate within
a group to change the opinions of dissenting members. Strong conformity
pressures are at work when groupthink emerges. That is, group members who
raise objections are pressured to change their views. One of the engineers
involved in the Challenger launching was initially opposed to the launch. Under
extreme pressure from others, he changed his vote.
5. Self-censorship. Once it appears that anyone who disagrees with the groupʼs
view will be pressured to conform, members of the group who have dissenting
opinions do not speak up because of the consequences. This leads to self-
censorship. After the initial opposition to the Challenger launching was rejected
rather harshly, for example, other engineers were less likely to express doubts.
6. The illusion of unanimity. Because of the strong atmosphere of conformity and
the self-censorship of those members who have doubts about the group decision,
the group harbors the illusion that everyone is in agreement. In the Challenger
decision, a poll was taken of management personnel (only), who generally
favored the launch. The engineers were present but were not allowed to vote.
What emerged was a unanimous vote to launch, even though the engineers
strongly disagreed. It looked as if everyone agreed to the launch.
7. Emergence of self-appointed mindguards. In much the same way as a person
can hire a bodyguard to protect him or her, group members emerge to protect
the group from damaging information. In the Challenger decision, managers
at Morton Thiokol emerged in this role. A high-ranking Thiokol manager did
not tell Arnold Aldrich about the dissension in the ranks at Thiokol. Thus, Jesse
Moore was never made aware of the concerns of the Thiokol engineers.

The Challenger Explosion Revisited
The space program never had an in-¬‚ight disaster. Astronauts had been killed before, but
in training missions, and very early in the programʼs development. Despite the patently
dangerous nature of space travel, the possibility of disaster had been dismissed because
it simply hadnʼt happened. In fact, it was deemed so safe that an untrained civilian, a
school teacher, was chosen to be a crew member on the Challenger.
When the leaders of groups have a preferred outcome and are under pressure to
make decisions quickly, it becomes highly likely that information that does not conform
to the favored point of view will be ignored by decision-making groups. Understanding
how groups interact and in¬‚uence their members is crucial to designing procedures that
will provide for rational decision-making processes.
Social Psychology

Chapter Review
1. What is a group?
A group is an assemblage of two or more individuals who in¬‚uence one
another through social interaction. Group members share perceptions of what
constitutes appropriate behavior (group norms), and they have formal and
informal roles. Group members are interdependent; that is, they depend on one
another to meet group goals, and they have emotional (affective) ties with one
another. Groups can be either instrumental (existing to perform a task or reach
a goal) or af¬liative (existing for more general, usually social, reasons).
Groups vary in cohesiveness, the strength of the relationships that link
the members of the group. Groups may be cohesive because the members
like one another (interpersonal cohesiveness), because they are physically
close to one another (propinquity), because they adhere to group norms, or
because they help each other do a good job and, therefore, attain group goals
(task-based cohesiveness).
2. Why do people join groups?
Groups help people meet their biological, psychological, and social needs.
Groups were certainly useful in the evolutionary history of humans, aiding the
species in its survival. Among the basic needs groups meet are social support,
protection from loneliness, and social comparison”the process by which we
compare our feelings, opinions, and behaviors with those of others in order to
get accurate information about ourselves. People join groups to ful¬ll these
needs and to enhance themselves.
3. How do groups in¬‚uence their members?
In addition to ful¬lling membersʼ needs, groups also in¬‚uence membersʼ
individual senses of worth and self-esteem, which, in turn, has an impact
on how one group relates to other groups in a society. Self-identity theory
suggests that much of our self-esteem derives from the status of the groups to
which we belong or with which we identify.
Members who threaten the success of a group also threaten the positive
image of the group. This leads to the black-sheep effect, the observation that
whereas an attractive in-group member is rated more highly than an attractive
member of an out-group, an unattractive in-group member is perceived more
negatively than an unattractive out-group member. Although groups may
serve to increase our self-esteem by enhancing our social identity, groups also
have the power to exact painful, even dreadful, punishment, including social
ostracism, which is de¬ned by Williams (1997) as the act of excluding or
ignoring other individuals or groups.
4. What effect does an audience have on performance?
The presence of other people or audiences may enhance our performance, a
process known as social facilitation. Other times, the presence of a critical
audience or an audience with high expectations decreases performance
(“choking”). Research has shown that the presence of others helps
when people perform a dominant, well-learned response but diminishes
performance when they perform a skill not very well learned or novel
Chapter 8 Group Processes 311

(social inhibition). This may be due to increased effort as a result of


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