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.