Risk of Groupthink

Collaborative discussions are not unique to the research ethics community. One can assume that every day, all over the world, there are many groups sitting in rooms trying to come to consensus on issues.

Given our near-universal constraint of time in a day, and the range of knowledge in any given room, these discussions can—often inadvertently—lean towards “groupthink,” where the attempt is made to minimize conflict, and in doing so reach a consensus without considering all viewpoints. Think of it as one of those “everyone agree?…[brief pause]…good, moving on…” situations.

When this happens, some in the group may feel uncomfortable dissenting, and a decision is made without considering all opinions. In this excerpt from People and Perspectives, Christy Rentmeester, PhD, associate professor at the Center for Health Policy and Ethics at Creighton University School of Medicine, discussed the risks that arise with groupthink:

“The risk of groupthink is that dissent is silenced. [If the person who disagrees] is not free to speak up or tell why they think differently, or they are never asked why they think differently, your deliberative process is broken.”

Dr. Rentmeester points out that groupthink is particularly dangerous for IRBs. As she puts it, the “quality of your deliberative process is directly related to how inclusive it is.” There’s always a risk that the process can be intimidating, particularly for those who may not feel they have the power to speak up.

“If you have questions about what you’ve read…you have to have space and you have to have courage to be able to ask those questions. And asking those questions means you are exposing your own ignorance…If you have that question, there very well might be other members of the committee who have that question.”

Watch the full interview with Dr. Rentmeester on People and Perspectives.

Do you have any good methods for ensuring your IRB stays away from, or is aware of groupthink? Have you felt uncomfortable speaking up during a meeting, but you found a method to do so? Share your thoughts in the comments below.