#Groupthink

Have you ever felt yourself being swayed in one direction because of something that you read online?

If you answered yes, you may have been a victim of online groupthink.

In my Strategic Management class last week, we learned about the various sources of common decision biases and traps. One of the sources that we talked about was groupthink. According to an article from Northwestern’s School of Education and Public Policy,  groupthink is a concept that was created to “describe extreme consensus seeking tendencies in decision-making groups.” Irving L. Janis wrote that groupthink is “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.” The concept has also been proven through many experiments, including the Asch conformity experiments. While groupthink is a popular concept that we have all experienced or have seen others experience in our physical lives, does the same concept of groupthink manifest itself online?

A study published in Science validates the idea of online groupthink. The results of the study showed that many people are swayed by positive opinions others post online. Through a five-month experiment that was conducted on a news-aggregation website, MIT professor Sinan Aral found that the comments that had a positive initial vote received a 25% higher average rating from other site users than the comments that did not have an initial positive vote. However, the comment average rating was not affected by an initial down vote. In other words, people are more likely inclined to favor something if they have seen that others have favored it as well. Whether we realize it or not, the strong influence of online groupthink is why online marketers use likes, reviews, and ratings. It is because people are swayed to buy a product or service when they can see that other people have and are happy with their decision.

The fundamental way that we receive news generates online groupthink. For example, your news feed on sites like Facebook contain updates and information from your friends and pages that you willingly followed. They also help us form opinions and ideas. Malcolm Gladwell writes in The New Yorker: “Our acquaintances…are our greatest source of new ideas and information.”  Social media and the internet has made it easier to connect with others than ever before, and this interconnectivity has sparked a new form of groupthink that we are all susceptible to.

This TED talk by Jon Ronson does a great explaining this new form of groupthink. Ronson says that the Internet and “Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine” and that we “surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other, and that’s a really good feeling.”

Jon Ronson’s thought is further echoed by Uptin Saiidi, who wrote:

“..in an age where my Google search results are different than yours, Facebook is only likely to show content that validates your existing beliefs – because, it wants you to click, like and share.”

Uptin Saiidi

CNBC, Multimedia Journalist

 

 

Upon further reflection on my own experiences, it’s true that a lot of the news that I read on my social media feeds are swayed heavily in one direction. They are presented in similar ways, and many of the opinions that I am exposed to are rather similar. More interestingly, I find myself trusting and sometimes agreeing with commentary on issues that I don’t know too much about. This bandwagon bias is real, and it’s dangerous.

The article writes: “Bandwagon bias is a form of groupthink. It’s a cognitive bias that makes us believe something because other people believe it.” It can also make us “lose our capacity for empathy and for distinguishing between serious and unserious transgressions.” Reputation Revolution writes: “The environment and opportunity for (temporary) anonymity cause the masses to fall victim to groupthink and apparently take great joy in their own perceived superiority while making allegations which would otherwise be unthinkable.” As a result, online bullying and shaming on sites like Facebook and Twitter have become a norm. In fact, according to the Cyber Bullying Research Center, “34% of the students from a 12,000 sample of middle school students across the U.S. reported experiencing cyber bullying.”

Online groupthink also has an immense influence on politics. According to New York Times author Claire C. Miller, internet companies “magnify the effect [of polarization] by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to [them].” As a result, social media users are hesitant on sharing their political views because of the fear of marginalization, social isolation or online harassment.  One Pew study found that in “online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them.” Furthermore, a study conducted by University of Chicago Professor Cass Sunstein found that “people held more-extreme positions after they spoke with like-minded others,” and that “both liberal groups and conservative groups [were made] significantly more homogeneous — and thus squelched diversity” of thought after being affirmed by those who have the same political ideologies. Evidence of this was seen in the recent Presidential election.

Online groupthink and the bandwagon bias can limit our ability to think independently and work efficiently. If we limit the way we learn about issues and receive news, we are limiting ourselves from being able to form clear opinions and thoughts. As the world becomes more interconnected, we need to be mindful of where we are receiving news from, and we should also be aware of underlying biases in the things that we read. Online groupthink should not cloud our judgment- our thoughts and opinions should always be our own.

 

8 comments

  1. Your article touches on a reality that comes with the rise in social media and technologies that allow consumers to share their opinions/reviews, however, we never hear about the groupthink theory and how it effects others. As you shared, it’s important that as social media users, we are aware of companies and people who use groupthink to shape our individual thoughts and opinions.

  2. I really enjoyed this post! Prior to reading, I had never actually heard of the term groupthink, but I definitely have noticed many of the ideas that you wrote about in my everyday life. Especially in my Business Law class this semester, I have become aware that I am most likely to stay quiet on issues where I do not agree with the majority opinion, and speak up when the majority is in my favor. While I do not post about politics on my social media accounts, I have no doubt that this would be the same on those platforms. In addition, I have also noticed that the opinions’ on my Facebook newsfeed are typically similar, and often sway me towards a stance on an issue simply because the ideas are reaffirmed by many of the people I follow. It is extremely important that we are aware of this implicit bias, in order to ensure that the opinions we are expressing are truly our own.

  3. Group think is SO real. As one of the Co-Presidents of BC Relay For Life, we always ask our committee members to like our posts, because no one likes to like a post that doesn’t have any likes. If a lot of people liked it, it’s more likely that others will too. In addition, my physical therapy place this summer always had a question of the day on the board. When talking about the answer, the other patients and I would always have similar answers solely because of group think. If I were the only patient there, I definitely think my answer would have been different. I wonder how far this could go!

  4. This is really interesting! I wonder how much of these polarizing articles in our Facebook newsfeeds is driven by Facebook’s algorithms vs. from our own self selection. I would expect that the majority of our own friends are similar to us and hold pretty similar views, which would mean our newsfeed is comprised of articles stating more of our own opinions. It would be interesting to see how people’s opinions would change if Facebook showed us an article with an opposing view for every article we shared or read stating our own view.

  5. It’s evident that you put a ton of thought and effort into your blog post. You used a ton of outside articles and statistics. Including a TED talk that supported your opinion was a great touch. After reading your insights, I’m definitely going to be more aware of groupthink, and will try to formulate my own opinions instead of following the masses. I, like Marielle, wonder how much of “groupthink” is created/driven by the social media applications themselves. When you’re shown content that is “chosen” specifically for you, how can we overcome groupthink?

  6. I think you’ll find that TED talk familiar this week! Prof Aral and I have known each other for well over 10 years, while we were both Ph.D. students. He’s a smart guy! You can follow him on Twitter at @sinanaral if you want! He’s way more popular on there than I am!

  7. You should look into the Mai Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. What had happened was that Platoon leadership ordered the soldiers to open fire on the villagers. At first there was delay but as time went on more and more soldiers took part in the shooting/burning/raping of the villagers. After the event many had said that they thought what they did was completely wrong, but since no one spoke out against it, self doubt creeped into their minds and they thought that maybe they were wrong. Groupthink can have terrible effects, and people with a good moral compass need to stand up and do what is right before Groupthink takes over for the worst.

  8. This is a tough one. I’ve made an effort to do things like follow people I disagree with on Twitter and Facebook to make sure that I stay educated – but having curated news coming from sites like that is very different from the way our parents got news. From what I’ve read, this is why the outcome of the election was a surprise to so many people – getting news from sources that you already agree with means that you’re perpetuating their perspectives.

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