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Neurodiversity and the Perils of Groupthink

Thursday 21 March, 2024

by Maureen Dunne (Illinois & New College 1999)

Maureen Dunne is a cognitive scientist, neurodiversity expert, global keynote speaker, board director, and business leader with over two decades of experience helping organizations build thriving cultures.

Groupthink. An invisible force that blew up the Challenger space shuttle, sapped billions of dollars from The Coca-Cola Company as it stumbled through its “New Coke” disaster in the 1980’s, bankrupted Swissair in 2002, and nearly plunged the world into nuclear armageddon in the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961.

Most organizational leaders never consider this insidious force. Why? Most likely because they are subject to its creeping control. And that’s precisely the point: leaders have an instinctive bias toward surrounding themselves with people that make sense to them; that think the way they do; that fall in line and don’t rock the boat. As this bias exudes increasing sway over hiring and advancement decisions, the noose tightens.

There is a vaccine for this pathogen so perfectly primed to infect organizational culture: Neurodiversity.

What is Groupthink?

Many of the most spectacular failures in business and government can be tied to Groupthink. Important information is overlooked. Creativity is abandoned. New ideas or alternatives are kept hidden and given no voice. Social status becomes linked to ‘falling in line’ and suppressing the expression of contrarian opinions to maintain social cohesion.

“Groupthink” has many subtly varying definitions. But the one I would submit is:

A level of homogeneity of thought that crosses some theoretical threshold where individual reasoning becomes subordinate to some emerging consensus within a group, resulting in a decision-making outcome that is driven by factors, including social dynamics, unrelated to an objective and rational evaluation of information relevant to making the most effective decision.

Symptoms include: a high and unbalanced level of cohesion among group members, a lack of critical evaluation of ideas and alternatives, an illusion of invulnerability, an illusion of morality, stereotyped views of out-groups, direct pressure on dissenters, self-censorship, and a shared illusion of unanimity.

Similarity of cognitive profile plays a key role, but it isn’t the only factor. Other factors are important as well, including a reliance on social transmission of ideas to gain information and a preoccupation with social status and perception to a degree that hinders the willingness to contradict the tide of group opinion.

Group Wisdom from Cognitive Diversity

In their 2014 book, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, Harvard’s Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie examine why group decision-making so frequently fails. A theme that repeatedly emerges in the book is how the sum of the intelligence, wisdom, courage, analytic acumen, insight, and diligence of each individual in the group, added together across the group, is not equal to the intelligence, wisdom, courage, analytic acumen, insight, and diligence of the group as a whole.

One of their big findings is that group decisions tend to increase individual-level confidence among members while decreasing the variance of individual-level opinions without increasing the accuracy of the end result. Another common pitfall in group decision-making is a bias to shift toward a more extreme position than that which defined each member’s pre-deliberation position.

Sunstein and Hastie highlight a Colorado study where people living in a politically left-of-center community (Boulder) and people living in a politically right-of-center community (Colorado Springs) were both polled about a series of issues: affirmative action, same-sex unions, and climate change. When they responded anonymously and independently, both communities demonstrated diversity in views, with more differences among respondents than between areas. However, when acting through public group deliberation, responses unified within each group and became more extreme in alignment with political orientation.

In other words, the richness of the knowledge, experience, and personal judgment present in the individual-level anonymous responses disappeared. In its place, extremism and conformity emerged to shape the outcome.

One of the most important causal factors driving this failure is pressure for people with dissenting views to stay quiet or to conform to the viewpoint that emerges first as the most popular framework among the group. Pressure can come in many forms. It doesn’t have to be in the form of direct verbal command. It can be self-inflicted social reasoning. Perhaps the classic experiment demonstrating this dynamic was conducted by Polish American gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch in the early 1950s.

Asch had 50 male students from Swarthmore College take a “vision test.” Each subject was put in a room with seven other people who were working with Asch. But the subject didn’t know these other seven participants were confederates aiding the experiment.

The group was then shown two images side by side. One was an image of a line of a certain length that was labeled the target line. The other was an image of three lines of different lengths that were labeled line A, line B, and line C. They were then asked which of the three lines (A, B, or C) was most similar in length to the target line. The answer was always obvious and unambiguous.

Answers were given out loud starting with each of the seven confederates going one by one, with the real subject going last. As you may have guessed, the confederates all gave an obviously wrong answer. And about three quarters of the time, subjects ended up conforming to the group pressure and giving an obviously incorrect answer as well.

Thus, group pressure skewed accuracy by more than 74 percent under conditions where incorrect reasoning emerged as a front-running view among a group. This dilemma is fundamental and must be faced and overcome.

Cognitive diversity can play a major role in resolving this dilemma and unlocking optimal group performance.

According to traditional models, a rational agent carefully considers all relevant factors when making important decisions. However, various cognitive biases can impact  that process. Several research studies further suggest autistic people are less prone to those same biases, especially the framing heuristic and marketing gimmicks that tend to strongly influence decision-making among neurotypical individuals. In other words, the data suggest autistic people make more consistently rational decisions when the calculus centers on something other than social positioning.

Yafai and colleagues demonstrated that autistic children are more likely to resist social pressure in a study highly reminiscent of the classic 1956 Asch study covered above. Autistic children were compared to neurotypical children on a task where each child was asked to report which line out of three available options matched another line in length. In a test of social conformity, child participants were sometimes misled as to what other people thought in terms of the correct response. The autistic children were significantly less likely to go along with the misleading incorrect option.

Sometimes, all it takes in a group decision-making process is one or two people either noticing an alternate path to progress or failing to be influenced by a popular but irrational choice and then speaking up against a dominant view to introduce new angles or perspectives into the group decision-making process.

That can be enough to both expand the range of possibilities under consideration and to give others in the room the confidence to speak up, which unearths what Sunstein and Hastie call “hidden profiles”—experiences, information, or perspectives locked away inside people who don’t feel comfortable voicing a minority view.

History is full of disaster post-mortems that find groupthink holding the smoking gun. Cognitive diversity is the vaccine that may have prevented them all.

Note: Sections of this essay are adapted from The Neurodiversity Edge: The Essential Guide to Embracing Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Differences for Any Organization by Maureen Dunne with permission from the publisher Wiley.

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