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The problem with groups

8th Jun 2018

This is the fifth blog in our Behavioural Government series, which explores how behavioural insights can be used to improve how government itself works.

Thomas Hobbes, in one of the first modern treatises on government, recognised that, in groups, advisers are ‘not moved by their own sense, but by the eloquence of another, or for fear of displeasing some that have spoken, or the whole by contradiction’.

Three hundred and fifty years later, many studies have confirmed Hobbes’ observation: individuals are very sensitive to the behaviour of other group members. One consequence of this is that groups often end up agreeing with whatever most members thought originally.

Worryingly, there is much evidence that this ‘fear of displeasing’ narrows perspectives and weakens decisions. This is a problem for government because almost all policy making involves discussions within and between groups.

Two main factors drive this ‘group reinforcement’.

First, people may hear many others expressing an opposing view and think their personal opinion may be wrong. Perhaps other people have better information and good reasons for thinking differently? This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the effects of this informational influence” can be so strong that people end up conforming to majority opinions which are obviously wrong.

A second cause of this type of conformity is when people don’t feel free to give their opinion because of social pressure. They may feel that others, particularly leaders, will disapprove if they speak up, and they will be less liked, influential and rewarded in future.

So, even if the group, and eventually the policy, would benefit from their knowledge, the best personal strategy is to not challenge the accepted view. This was seen as one of the reasons why the problems with the Affordable Care Act website were not fed upwards to President Obama, for example.

Government officials may be particularly exposed to these social pressures. This is because they are more likely to occur in homogeneous groups, which have been common in government organisations (although this is changing); and because bureaucratic institutions are often formal and hierarchical, which inhibits confrontation and dissent.

Many existing examples of group reinforcement concern foreign policy decisions. For example, the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s deployment of military force in Iraq found repeated evidence that policy proposals were not challenged sufficiently (or at all) as they emerged.

It can be tricky to find real world policy examples of these effects, since it is rare that group discussions by policy makers are both recorded and made public. One clear exception is the discussions by members of central bank committees, which are increasingly a matter of public record.

The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee includes five internal members, who are career central bankers, and four external expert members. The Committee sets the short-term interest rate; if a member disagrees with the majority view, they can cast a dissenting vote.

Interestingly, an analysis of 1997-2008 voting shows that the rate at which internal members dissent increases as they go through their three-year term, from 5.5% to 13.5%. In contrast, the dissent rate of the external members starts high and does not change over time.

Figure 1: Rate of dissent by internal members of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, by year of tenure (adapted from Berk & Beirut, 2010).

One explanation is that internal members are more susceptible to majority influence as they start out on the committee. This could be because of informational effects (in a new setting, they are more open to others’ judgments to inform theirs) or social pressures (the existing norms of a hierarchical institution bias them towards conformity). A caveat: other explanations for the data are possible as well.

Group dynamics can influence policy decisions in various and unexpected ways (see box). What is clear, though, is that they are core to how policy actually gets made. That is why they are a major focus of our upcoming Behavioural Government report, out in July.

Groups create issues you may not expect

Majority influence in groups can lead to issues that may not be obvious. For example, studies show that:

Groups focus on what most people already know. The more group members that possess a piece of information, the more influence it has on the group decision – regardless of its actual quality or importance. This has been called the “common knowledge effect”.

Discussion can make groups’ views more extreme. When people express opinions in line with the majority, then collectively those views get reinforced and become stronger and more extreme.

Initial contributions can strongly sway group opinion. When people take cues from each other, then speaking first – or getting to set the agenda and provide supporting papers – can have a big impact on the outcome of the discussion. The decisions of the first contributors, even if they are marginal calls, can create domino effects whereby subsequent speakers fall into line (either through informational influence or social pressures).