What is 'Groupthink' and why can it ruin market research?

2nd Jun 2015

The outcome of the recent British general election was a surprise to everyone, including the public, the media and the politicians. For months previously, it was accepted by all, that the election would result in a “hung Parliament” with another coalition Government.

There was a degree of shock and disbelief when the first exit polls indicated not only a win for the Conservative party, but also one with an overall majority. It was only after the last counted results were declared that the fact was accepted that what the pollsters, politicians and media had assumed as a forgone conclusion, was totally wrong.

A post-election analysis of the poll results by the pollsters themselves, showed that all the polls were in agreement of a hung parliament result, with the exception of one. That one poll was uncannily accurate to the actual result. However, because it was only one poll amongst so many that agreed, it was disregarded. Why? The answer lies in a phenomena, generally known as 'Groupthink'. So how did this situation come about and why is it important for every business organisation, especially their commercial managers, to understand its implications.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'Groupthink' as “The practice of thinking or making decisions as group, resulting typically in unchallenged poor-quality decision-making”. Another and more descriptive definition of 'Groupthink' is the tendency of members of a group to yield to the desire for consensus or unanimity at the cost of considering alternative courses of action. “Groupthink” is said to be the reason why intelligent and knowledgeable people make disastrous decisions.

For the commercial manager responsible for producing profitable income for a business, important decision making is based on overall assessments resulting from assumptions, research and interpretation of fact.  If any of these decision making factors is unreliable, then the overall assessment is questionable.

As with any senior management, commercial mangers rely on their staff and engaged outside agencies to provide information on which their assessments and decisions are to be made. However, when confronted by 'evidence' from reliable sources that point to a strong consensus of opinion, that opinion is often accepted with little or no question. One of the characteristics of “Groupthink” is the inability to consider that the Group assessment might be wrong or that alternative “rogue” opinion might be right and ought to be dispassionately investigated and considered. In some cases, even daring to question the consensus opinion of experts is to invite criticism or ostracism. Questioning the 'expert opinion', especially if it is that of the managing director or chairman can lead to the career damaging accusation of being a trouble maker and not a team player.  Any individual or different opinion from that of the general consensus tends to be ignored.

There are many reasons why people subscribe to the 'Groupthink' opinions; sometimes it is laziness, in that it is easier to agree with others rather than make an independent assessment, sometimes it is deference to another, or simply a desire to conform and not be seen as the only dissenting voice. The pernicious attitude of political correctness may also prevent people from voicing dissent and alternative opinions.

Groupthink and market research

How does 'Groupthink' manifest itself in the commercial environment? One of the most obvious places is through market research reports. Another prime area is through business plans where basic assumptions go unchallenged. Experts are not infallible and should be required to give evidence for their opinions

For the commercial manager, responsible for producing the necessary profitable income for the continuance of their business, it is essential that commercial decisions are made from reliable assessments based as far as possible on verifiable facts. To this end, commercial managers should always question consensus opinions and maintain a healthy scepticism of them, because it is possible that the consensus or majority opinion is wrong and the odd-man out might just be right, - but how do you know?

When it comes to evaluating market research, there are a number of things that the commercial manager can do to verify the reliability of any business plan or marketing research report.

Here are some factors for consideration.

  • Who made the report, how reliable are the authors,
  • How was the report compiled, - what sources were used, how were they selected, and when.
  • Were the right questions asked.
  • Was the information qualitative , quantitative and verifiable.
  • What assumptions were used, - why were they made and on what evidence.
  • Were the consequences of action or inaction considered.
  • Are there possibly alternative conflicting conclusions – what are they, have they been tested?

The sole purpose of every business is to make money, for which the commercial manager is a principle decision maker. Being aware of the possibility of 'Groupthink' when evaluation reports or making decisions is therefore vital if correct decisions and the best results obtained. Experts are not always right, neither are majority opinions always reliable and the lone dissenting voice is not always wrong, but might be the only one that is right.

Nicholas Watkis is the founder of Contract Marketing Service, established in 1981. He is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a certified management consultant of the Institute of Business Consultancy. 

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By Mike Austin
03rd Jun 2015 11:28

.. which is why it's such a difficult problem to detect. For example "being a team player", "positive thinking", "on message", and not "blocking progress" or "being a sceptic".

In addition to the factors you mention, bear in mind "cherry picking" and "noble cause corruption". 

This blog post summarizes some of the most common issues when reading a report:
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