Groupthink

There are many psychosocial factors (personality, ego, culture, leadership style, the “Siren” effect, group dynamics, communication, etc.) that have a role in determining both risk management and consequences while playing in the outdoors. Of all of them though I believe the one that has contributed to the most tragedy, serious injury and death is Groupthink. Although I have been aware of this phenomenon for many years it was only after reading Alpine Climbing: Techniques to Take You Higher, written by Mark Houston and Kathy Cosley and published by The Mountaineers Books (3rd printing 2007) that I realized it had a name.

Groupthink https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink is that psychosocial force which prevents us from voicing those thoughts or opinions that may be perceived as challenging the authority of the “leader” or the “group”, or that may result in negatively impacting the outcome of the trip or the experience of the other members of the group. It can be very uncomfortable to risk making a comment that could result in the group aborting the trip along with the thought of dealing with the disappointment or perhaps outright anger/hostility from other group members. I think it fair to say, no one wants to be the one who “spoils the party” for the others. This reluctance to speak up is the result of several factors. Leadership style (some “leaders” use a rigid, top down style that does not tolerate discussion from the “followers”), Culture (some cultures impose a top down leadership style), personality (some people are more assertive and confidant than others), experience (people with less real or perceived experience are less likely to speak up), gender, age, group size (the larger the group the less likely someone is to speak up), etc.. The reluctance to say anything is further complicated by the fact that the concerns are often based on a vague sense of unease or discomfort rather than “hard objective facts”. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that those “facts” don’t exist, but more that they can often be subtle and easily overlooked or dismissed, especially by people with experience or training. As a bit of an aside, I have often found that it is those with little experience or training who are often better at helping the more experienced to remember or refocus and to reassess the risk at hand.

The need to be part of the group and to conform to it’s rules and norms has generally worked very well for us as species and I would not be surprised to learn that this need is “hard wired” into our psyche. Given, how powerful this Groupthink force is, I don’t believe it is possible to eliminate it and it’s negative effects, however I do think there are things we can do to minimize it’s impact.

1. Pick a leader. Groups have several roles that need to be filled and Leader is a primary one. In my opinion it is helpful to be deliberate about who the Leader for a particular outing will be.

2. Create an environment in which people feel comfortable expressing concerns or asking questions without the fear of embarrasment or retribution.

3. State at the outset of an outing the importance of paying attention to one’s “intuition” and speaking up or asking questions if uncertain or uneasy about an aspect of the trip.

4. Make sure to seek input from the quieter members of the group who may be reluctant to say anything. This is where learning and using “active listening” has great value.

First Post

There has been another needless and senseless loss of life in the mountains. A young man (30), was scrambling in poor weather and marginal conditions, when he triggered an avalanche that swept him to his death. There is, unfortunately, nothing new or unique about this tragedy. In fact over the past several years it has become commonplace to hear of or read stories about some ATV’er, snowmobiler, skier, hiker, climber being severlly injured or killed while enjoying his or her favorite outdoor activity.

There is also nothing new about the eulogies for these men, women and children. They were kind, thoughtful and intelligent.

And there is nothing new about the survivors trying to make sense of something that seems so needless and senseless. Among the questions asked, somewhat rhetorically, is, “What was he or she, or they thinking?” The assumption underlying this is that had they been “thinking” they wouldn’t have made the stupid, senseless decisions that led to them being injured or dying.

I’m not so sure about that. I think that the victims of these tragedy’s WERE thinking. My guess is that for the most part they were aware of the risks and for whatever reason decided they were manageable. What I am sure about is that the decision making process in an outdoor recreation environment is complex with a number of factors from tangible exterior information to social norms and unconscious psychological phenomenon playing a role. And I am also sure that no one, regardless of gender, age, culture, experience or training is immune from making stupid decisions.

Professionals in outdoor activities frequently receive training in Group Management, Crisis Management, Leadership Development, Decision Making, Risk Management, etc (These are often lumped together and labelled Human Factors although they are in fact a subset of Human Factors). However, for the amateur recreationist, weekend warrior or volunteer trip leader there is little to nothing available.

My hope with this site is to correct that by:

1.Providing a space for users to discuss their experiences and thought processes

2. Providing a place for users to share information and research about the above topics as well as techniques, or insights on how to mitigate their effects.

3. Provide formal training for recreational outdoor enthusiasts and for volunteer trip/activity leaders on Group Management, Crisis Management and other leadership skills.

4. Increase awareness of the above through outreach to outdoor groups, individuals and community organizations.