Saturday, February 24, 2007

Groupthink and gaming

Irving Janis' classic book Groupthink deals with the distortions that can enter a group decision making process when members of the group edit their participation in deliberations out of concern (conscious or subconscious) for preserving the cohesion of the group. His hypotheses have relevance to gaming in three ways: identifying potential pitfalls for gaming exercises meant to produce usable policy insights, suggesting methods of utilizing gaming to avoid some of the problems of groupthink within a decision making process, and presenting challenges in group dynamics that can profitably be studied using gaming techniques.

Janis posited three "antecedent conditions" for the emergence of groupthink in a given decision making context:

1. The decision makers constitute a cohesive group
2. Structural faults of the organization (such as insulation of the decision making group from outside information/experts)
3. A provocative situational context (such as high stress from external threats combined with lack of hope of finding a better solution than the leader's, or low self-esteem on the part of group members as a result of recent failures)

Janis grouped the resultant symptoms of groupthink into three broad categories: overestimation of the group, closed-mindedness, and pressures towards uniformity.

These symptoms can lead to defective decision making characterized by premature consensus without appropriate consideration of all relevant alternatives, objectives, and risks. Defective decision making will presumably lead to lowered probability of success.

There has been so much consideration of the groupthink phenomenon in the past 20 years that a 2002 book even suggested that some organizations have gone too far with their concern about groupthink, to the point of making substantive agreement difficult or impossible, deadlocking the decision making process, or at least not providing optimal results. (Paul Kower, Groupthink or Deadlock) I haven't read this yet, but it sounds like an argument for moderation in the pursuit of a groupthink-free decision making process. That sounds like something Janis would approve of, as he mentions the risks of not considering the costs of measures designed to reduce groupthink.

I will return to the topic of groupthink soon, but as for using gaming techniques to study the phenomenon of groupthink, by its very nature groupthink requires small group decision-making exercises not too far removed from the policy gaming exercises I'm trying to blog about. While the focus of study, the relationship between game controller and participant, and the subject matter of the exercises are all different, in each type of game there is an interest in both the decision making process and the results of that process. Psychological research through gaming requires an attempt to turn the exercises into controlled experiments, which is generally not possible in policy gaming.

Wikipedia on Groupthink.

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