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Review: Wiser. Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter

posted Aug 14, 2015, 1:56 PM by Ben Jane   [ updated Aug 14, 2015, 11:31 PM ]

Sunstein, C. R., & Hastie, R. (2014). Wiser: Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter. Harvard Business Press. [amazon]

I have long had a fascination with the workings of groups and my primary research interest among many related to physical activity is the workings of group interventions and the interactions of the group members that can lead to a multitude of positive changes.

I have also had a fascination with the workings of groups that are created with the premise of making better decisions and generally getting collective work done. Several years ago I read The Wisdom of Crowds by Surowiecki and have since been interested in the main premise that very accurate forecasts and solid decisions can be made by groups of people as long as the environment in which these decisions take place is constructed in the right way. Having also enjoyed Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein I was interested to read Wiser and on this page I present an overview of the content with a selection of references and further reading. In short, the premise of this book is that while the right environment can indeed help groups to make the right decisions, the opposite is often more likely.
The content on this page is primarily my own notes and not designed to be a full review or complete on its own. If you are interested in finding out more, and in particular, if you have enjoyed other popular titles such as Thinking Fast and Slow and Nudge then I would recommend reading the book or watch the Youtube video at the end of this blog.

Why groups fail?

Complacency, Anxiety and Happy talk - happy talk occurs when team members all agree that everything is hunky dory and that everything will work out fine while complacent leaders are often upbeat and overly content. Anxious people can be optimistic and even enthusiastic yet are troubled by concern, scepticism and doubt. Anxious people are to be encouraged and given a place at the table according to the authors.

There are two reasons why individuals will not contribute their knowledge effectively to a group:
1. Informational Signals - what other people say and do
2. Social Pressures - the influence of being around other people and the interactions of status and personality
These can both lead to any of the four following issues:

Amplification of errors

            Sunk-cost fallacy

            Availability heuristic

            Representativeness heuristic

            Framing effect

            Egocentric bias

            Planning fallacy


Hindsight bias


            Informational cascades – people do not reveal all that they know. Prior decisions based on inconclusive information can be swayed by the weight of previously stated decisions and information.

            Reputational cascades – individuals go along with the stated group view so as not to face the disapproval of their bosses or colleagues.

            Availability cascades – Memorable, easy to recall information is more likely to be shared than more hard to come by, mundane information

Group Polarization


            In-groups and Out-groups

Focus only on shared information

            Hidden profiles and shared identities

            Common-knowledge effect

Distribution – statistical v deliberating groups

Self-silencing leaders

How groups succeed?

Diversity and dissent promote creativity and innovation

  1. Inquisitive, self-silencing leaders

  2. Priming critical thinking

  3. Rewarding group success

  4. Role assignment

  5. Perspective changing

  6. Devils advocates

  7. Red teams

  8. Delphi methods

Framework for success

Identifying solutions and Selecting Solutions

  • search (many people/independent of each other/diverse) or refine or invent
  • Well-defined criteria, ID not selection, share then reconsider, diverse solutions, record ideas

  • review/test, unbiased evaluators, decisive         

The use of experts – better to use more, select them based on objective performance evidence

The use of tournaments – Asking lots of people (or groups) to solve a problem and offering a prize for the best solution can be a very efficient means of creating innovative solutions. This chapter outlines good practice in this area.

Ask the public – Big decisions, particularly of governmental policy will have many effects on a wide range of people. Asking the public to comment can highlight issues that would not be raised otherwise.

My afterthoughts

Groups can be great for pooling expertise and knowledge however they are just as susceptible to errors of thinking as individuals and many examples cited show how they can amplify many of these common errors. “Smart leaders are anxious”, and will silence themselves and strive to ask the right questions of their teams. Only then will they give their opinions and demonstrate their leadership in taking any final decisions based on inconclusive information. Good leaders do not seek consensus but encourage the seeking out and sharing of all information and the collective responsibility of making the right decisions. They do not punish the opposing view but seek it out and even reward those that can present well-constructed arguments for a range of solutions.  

Selected references and reading

Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational. New York: HarperCollins.[synopsis]

Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Readings about the social animal, 193, 17-26.[full text]

Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Peetz, J. (2010). The planning fallacy: cognitive, motivational, and social origins. Advances in experimental social psychology, 43, 1-62. [www]

Galton, F. (1907). Vox populi (the wisdom of crowds). Nature, 75, 450-451. [pdf]

Gladwell, M. (2004). Personality plus. New Yorker, 43.

Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books. [www]

Glaeser, E. L., & Sunstein, C. R. (2007). Extremism and social learning (No. w13687). National Bureau of Economic Research.[www]

Hirshleifer, D. (1998). The Blind Leading the Blind: Social Influence, Fads, and Informational Cascades, in The New Economics of Human Behavior 188 (Mariano Tommasi & Kathyrn Ierulli eds., 1995), and Sushil Bikhchandani et al., Learning from the Behavior of Others: Conformity, Fads, and Informational Cascades. J. Econ. Persps., 12, 151.

Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (2nd ed) Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Kelley, T., & Littman, J. (2001). The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America\'s Leading Design Firm.

Klein, G. (2003). The power of intuition. Doubleday, New York, NY.

Lewis, M. (2004). Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game. WW Norton & Company. [pdf]

Lorenz, J., Rauhut, H., Schweitzer, F., & Helbing, D. (2011). How social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(22), 9020-9025. [full text]

Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan.

Nalebuff, B., & Ayres, I. (2003). Why not?: How to use everyday ingenuity to solve problems big and small. Harvard Business Press.

Pohl, R.F. (2004) Cognitive illusions: A handbook on fallacies and biases in thinking, judgment and memory. New York: Psychology Press

Pratkanis, A. R. (Ed.). (2011). The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. Psychology Press.[google]

Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias: A tour of the irrationally positive brain. Vintage.

Silver, N. (2012). The signal and the noise: Why so many predictions fail-but some don't. Penguin.

Stasser, G., & Dietz-Uhler, B. (2001). Collective choice, judgment, and problem solving. Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Group processes, 3, 31-55.[researchgate]

Stasser, G., & Titus, W. (2003). Hidden profiles: A brief history. Psychological Inquiry, 14(3-4), 304-313.

Sunstein, C. R. (2014). Simpler: The future of government. Simon and Schuster.[google]

Surowiecki, J. (2005). The wisdom of crowds. Anchor.

Tetlock, P (2012) How to win at forecasting Edge. December 6

Thaler, R. H. and Sunstein, C.R. (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

Prof Sunstein on Wisdom