Group Obedience

Have you ever stopped yourself from speaking up at a meeting because you felt that the idea or suggestion would not be appreciated or ridiculed? Groupthink is a phenomenon where the desire for group cohesiveness and a quick decision cloud the judgment of the people in the group. The decision taken is often less than ideal. Consequently, identifying warning signs of groupthink is vital. 

images (1)Bay of Pigs was a plan that many knew in advance would fail. Yet the American President J.F. Kennedy went ahead with the plans to try to invade Cuba despite the fact that several of the general knew that the plan would backfire.

Another example is the Challenger explosion, which was a disaster that occurred in 1986 where seven people died. Engineers of the space shuttle knew about some faulty parts months before takeoff, yet the signs were ignored to avoid negative press and the shuttle was launched. 

imagesFeelings of unanimity and morality within the group lead to the members thinking that everyone agrees. Members of the group may be afraid of controversy and there may be a pressure to conform to the group’s decision. In some cases, there is a pressure to make a quick decision and the group may work with incomplete information. This may result in an idea that is not balanced. Or it may result in a family going to Abilene despite the fact that no one wants to go. ScreenShot2012-01-27at115851AM

The Abilene Paradox was coined by Jerry B. Harvey, and author of “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management”. 

There are a number of ways to avoid groupthink such as finding negative points and risks with an idea (see Thinkibility – Positive & Negative). Asking members outside the group to look at the idea is another way to reduce the effects of groupthink. 

Learning how to spot groupthink is vital. Signs of groupthink are a strong leader, high level of group cohesion and pressure from the outside to make a good decision.


Pressure of a moral character is difficult to deal with. For example, the suggestion that an idea is better because it is more moral is challenging and difficult to resist since no one wants to be seen as less moral or immoral. Suggestions such as “We all know right from wrong, and this is right” are emotionally difficult to deal with. 

A company should have a Plan B or a contingency plan to minimise risks related to groupthinkThe emotional consequences of groupthink can leave many of the members feeling disillusioned and dissatisfied. Enthusiasm can fade if you feel that you do not support a decision that has been taken by the group.  

business meeting - woman ceo

Creating a healthy group working environment helps to ensure that the group makes good decisions. Nominal Group Technique focuses on members independently  nominating priority issues, on a scale of, for example, 1 to 5.


nominal grouptechnique

Another method that could be used is the Delphi method. This method helps to structure the communication to ensure that consensus is achieved. Thus these methods try to prevent and minimise the impact of Groupthink.


It is called Delphi because some researchers assumed that the forecasts by the priests of the Delphi oracle basically were compilations of information the visitors from all over the known world brought in themselves.

Basically, it is not the best strategy to strive for consensus, but for dissent.


So encourage disagreement, difference of opinion, argument, dispute, disapproval, objection and protest over constructing consent and majority rule.

See also our earlier posts:



Ish – Thinking – Thinkibility Boost

As an introduction to a series of blogposts about conceptual thinking we will start by paying attention to “ISH-Thinking”. A concept is an abstract pattern in the brain that stands for some regular, recurrent aspect of the world, and to which  any number of different words can be attached. Sometimes ago we already pointed out the relation between thinking and language, as in our posts How Thinking Patterns are CreatedBanging the World into Sorting Boxes and Key Concepts as Optical Filters. As we see in the picture below a toddler is confronted with a an almost insoluble problem. He has to place a square block in a box, which, however, only has openings in the form of a circle and a triangle. ISH-thinking

Perhaps the toddler might solve the problem by redefining the block as two pyramids stuck together. The block is “pyramid-ish” and might fit the triangle opening.

In our daily lives, we often try to give meaning to a diffuse situation by drafting a metaphor that is more or less “like-ish”. Mostly the metaphor does not fit exactly, at least not literally.

  • by doing that he stuck a knife in my back
  • I feel butterflies in my belly
  • at this moment she is very instable
  • their relationship is stormy

Mostly we don’t have any problem at all in using these ill-defined concepts. It helps us to articulate confusing and in particular emotional situations to “get grip on them”. Less prevalent is “ish-thinking” to describe seemingly well-defined physical objects. You will rarely hear someone who discusses a concrete thing (a bridge, a museum, a coffee shop) as ” thing-ish” like bridge-ish, museum-ish, coffee shop-ish). Yet, Starbuck is coffee shop-ish. Also, a kind of museum which would work like a modern library could be called museum-ish or library-ish: Art-works will be transported from the basement to the museum room at the request of the museum visitor, like in libraries with books.

And this is surely “bridge-ish”:


In this instance it’s about inviting people to cross a body of water in an unconventional manner… by using an inflatable bridge equipped with giant trampolines.

Is it a bridge or is it a gigantic trampoline? Or both, or more or less?

We are sure that the moment you begin to think about an ish-bike, an ish-refrigerator, sunglasses-ish or a sweater-ish for the winter, you will get rid of existing preconception on how they should look. Instead, you may  start to think about alternative forms and functions. That is because by adding the suffix “ish” to the noun, you give yourself permission to think in alternative designs. We came across a similar idea (Ïsh-thinking- ish”) in Fuzzy Concepts:

A fuzzy concept is a concept of which the boundaries of application can vary considerably according to context or conditions, instead of being fixed once and for all. This means the concept is vague in some way, lacking a fixed, precise meaning, without however being unclear or meaningless altogether. It has a definite meaning, which can become more precise only through further elaboration and specification, including a closer definition of the context in which the concept is used.”

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept. fuzzy conceptTo follow our future series on Conceptual Thinking, subscribe to the blog

Key Performance (mis) Indicators


Key Performance Indicators are meant to keep an organisation on track. By measuring the performance over time, you are able to look at deviations and to take measures. As Wikipedia defines it: A  key performance indicator (KPI) is a type of performance measurement. An organization may use KPIs to evaluate its success, or to evaluate the success of a particular activity in which it is engaged. Sometimes success is defined in terms of making progress toward strategic goals, but often success is simply the repeated, periodic achievement of some level of operational goal (e.g. zero defects, 10/10 customer satisfaction, etc.).

The concept behind Key Performance Indicators is to build a feedback loop between input and output. Its working principle does not differ from a thermostat, which senses the temperature of a system so that the system’s temperature is maintained near a desired set-point.


In order to get not market driven organisations more efficient the adage “The numbers tell the tale”has become fashion among governments, institutions and not-for-profit companies. There are several metrics or key performance indicators.

However, Key Performance Indicators can also lead to perverse incentives and unintended consequences as a result of employees working to the specific measurements at the expense of the actual quality or value of their work. In the social sciencesunintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action. Perverse incentives are a type of unintended consequence. A perverse incentive is an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable result which is contrary to the interests of the incentive makers.

There are a lot of examples of bad designed Key Performance Indicators. We came across, but not exhaustive:

  • Police officers get a predetermined quota of fines to give out. The unintended effect of this KPI that the police organisation will be focused on easy to obtain files, f.i. traffic fines instead of fighting serious crime;
  • An organisation involved in handling objections has a KPI for the amount of rejected complaints. Imagine how employees will approach complaints. . .
  • It is generally accepted that the progress of students is evaluated by tests. However, student tests assess only a small part of needed knowledge, skills and attitude of students. Also, often the purpose of the test, timely warning of learning difficulties and study delays, dilutes to “a (missed) ticket to the next hurdle”;
  • An agency of child protection is responsible for placing abused or emotional neglected children in foster parents and child care institutions. It is very logic to design a KPI: like the number of placed children. If this performance is coupled to the financing of the agency, it can easily lead  to placing children out of their home, against sound indications that there is no need for or against parents objections;
  • It is complete reasonable to expect higher efficiency and experience of surgeons as a hospital performs at least 30 knee surgery or angioplasty a year. However, such a KPI can lead to more instead of less knee surgery and angioplasty, an example of a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (an intended solution makes a problem worse);
  •  The selling of mortgages as an end in itself, even to people who could no pay the interest, led to the bank crisis in 2008. Another example of a negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy to motivate sellers to do better their best.
  • To increase the efficiency of university studies universities are judged on the number of successful students per year. It is now tempting to reduce the requirements for passing exams.
  • In order to increase the efficiency of General Practitioners many assurance companies allow for not more than ten minutes consults by patients. This KPI leads to far more referrals to medical specialists because GP’s have not much time to carefully investigate the medical complaints. This is an example of a counterproductive KPI: it is more of an “obstacle” than a help in the achieving of a productive project or an objective;
  • Crews of warships run annual series of nautical and operational exercises. Through a complex multi-factor analysis, a KPI is derived: Operational Employ-ability. Members of Parliaments asked questions when the KPI decreased to 10%, as a warship was actually deployed in a crisis;
  • Notorious are budgets: the setting of expenditure levels for each of an organization’s functions. It expresses strategic plans of business units, organizations, activities or events in measurable terms. However, such budget tends to be exhausted at the end of the year, because organizational units realise that they will be shortened in budget for next year, because last year they needed not the full budget. So, as an example, in many towns you can observe that every five to ten years the same streets and squares are completely overhauled without any need but in order to use the full budget.

Many Key Performance Indicators have unintended effects. They function as rules for behavior. Key performance Indicators are designed to notice need for adjustments of the course of an organisation. However, more often than not, they are invitations to cheat, by employees but equally by companies and institutions,  especially when financial consequences are attached to the KPI.

Whenever designing or encountering a Key Performance Indication, be warned!


unintended consequences

For more examples of perverse incentives, see here. For examples of unintended consequences see here.

To built up your Thinkibility skills, imagine your are the director of a hospice. You have set a thinking task: how to improve the occupancy (KPI) of the hospice. Then check your answers with How Dying Became A Multibillion-Dollar Industry.



Key Concepts as Optical Filters – Thinkibility Boost

Filter-optics-1 Optical filters are devices that selectively transmit light of different wavelengths. They absorb some wavelengths of light – that is, colors – while transmitting others. Optical filters define what we see and what is left out.

Key concepts and filters

Key concepts do exactly the same with what we perceive. They strengthen or weaken information, change “colors”, let things out or vary the contrast. As you will see in the image below a key Western concept like “University” colors the way Westerners interpret the Chinese concept of Dá Xué.  

However, it is not even comparable to it. Dá Xué as a concept refers to “The Great Learning” as a metaphor to become Junzi, an ideal personality to finally achieve the highest ideal, Shengren. Shengren is the single most important conceptin the Chinese tradition. The original name of the National University of Peking is therefore 国立北京大学 (Guólì Běijīng Dàxué)

Conversely, you can imagine how surprised or perhaps confused Chinese students will experience Western universities, as a culture shock. They will interpret the concept of a Western university through the filter of the Chinese concept Dá Xué, as in the picture below we have tried to visualize.

key concepts

By translating Dá Xué easy-going in English “University”, it projects unconsciously Western ideas about education onto Chinese concepts. It is called language imperialism: the practice of promoting and imposing a culture by language, usually of politically powerful nations over less potent societies which determine general cultural values and standardize civilizations throughout the world.

Concepts that are seemingly the same, bus essential not at all

Most Chinese concepts cannot adequately translated and we should not try that either but rather adopt them. It is only then that we can escape from standardized ideas about universities. Otherwise, language will act as a prison of thought and will hinder Thinki bility.

For instance, Sun Tsu’s “The art of war” is an incorrect translation of ping-fa. It means “the art of empire building,” or perhaps more correctly, “the art of successful engagement management.”

Another example is the Western concept of civilization. Superficial thought could it be translated into “wenming”. However, “civilization” as city people’s mastery over materials and technology doesn’t reflect the idea of a high level of ethics and gentleness of a person as the concept of Wenming does.

Besides concepts that are somewhat the same, but in essence not at all, are concepts that do not exist in the West or do not exist in the East.

Concepts that do not exist at all in the West or East

Some Chinese concepts that are not translatable in the Western World are:

  • Kung Fu. In its original meaning, kung fu can refer to any skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial.  This illustrates how the meaning of this term has been changed in English. The origin of this change can be attributed to the misunderstanding or mistranslation of the term.
  • Feng Shui.  Feng Shui is a system of harmonizing the human existence with the surrounding environment
  • Yin and Yang. This concept is about to circumscribe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world; and, how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.
  • Zhi. A concept that is about aspiration, will, knowledge and wisdom and could be paraphrased as “materialized lifebreadth”
  • Xin. Xin could refer to one’s “disposition” or “feelings” or to one’s confidence or trust in something or someone
  • Chinese concepts like Siren, De, Ren’ai, Ren and Yi are not even to be found in Wikipedia or elsewhere on the Web. Moreover, there are more than 35.000 Chinese words that cannot be properly translated into the English language.

Note that when you look up these concepts in Wikipedia they often refer to Chinese philosophy, an concept that according to Thorsten Pattberg from Peking University doesn’t even exist in the Chinese language. As noted earlier, we would not want it! Conversely, some Western concepts that do not exist in China are:

  • love. Love usually refers to an experience one person feels for another.
  • privacy. Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively.
  • hypothesis. The concept of hypothesis is something like speculating or putting forward a possibility, an impossibility or an intermediate impossibility
  • artist
  • philosopher
  • democracy

Concepts are like logic bubbles or thinking patterns. They define what you perceive and what alternatives, possibilities and choices you can come up with. Translating foreign concepts in native language could destroy the original meaning. Using original foreign concepts may reveal new insights.

chinese Read here more about the East-West dichotomy.

Thin-slicing : the power of intuition – Thinkibility Boost


Building up Intuition is “thin-slicing”

In an earlier post,  we discussed the relation between Reasoning and Intuition on the basis of Kahneman’s two interrelated thinking systems. One is fast, intuitive reactive and emotional. The other is slow, deliberate, methodical and rational. Although he acknowledges that the mind functions thanks to a delicate, intricate and sometimes difficult balance between the two systems, his book Thinking, Fast and Slow is mainly about biases of intuition. And to prevent them, we ought to be less thinking-lazy. That is to say that we must mobilize more often System 2: the laborious process of analysis. We recommended this book in our post Reasoning versus Intuition.

Basically, from childhood on a mindset is stamped in the brain “Don’t trust your Intuition”. It is a result of the scientific revolution. The result is that intuition is highly undervalued. But there are many situations where there is no room for rational thinking, yet there have to be an action, a judgement  or a decision. In such a situation the use of intuition is a last resort and we had better to be trained for it.

  • there is too little information available
  • there is too much information
  • the situation is too complex to analyse methodically
  • a quick reaction is required
  • a situation wherein someone is overwhelmed by emotions

There are also many positives of using intuition:

  • it allows for a much broader and sensitive exploration of a subject or situation
  • it can grasp soft notions about a subject or intangible aspects
  • it is very useful in situation when something cannot be caught in words
  • it draws on valuable experience
  • non-verbal clues (smell, taste, bodily signals) are mostly not available in language
  • it is less likely to get caught up in red herrings or distractions
  • there is no need  for justification (that is per definition impossible and not to trust anyway if tried)

There are not merely advantages of intuitive thinking. Sometimes it even outperforms rational systematic thinking.

In an earlier blog post Inteligent Gossip by the Watercooler we mentioned already Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, a 2005 book by Malcolm Gladwell. It is all about  mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. Although a substantial part of his book is addressing the pitfalls of intuitive thinking such as priming and stereotypes we recommend this book because it illustrates the powerful performance of what Gladwell calls “Thin-slicing“.

Thin-slicing or Rapid Cognition refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. It is the power of knowing in the first two seconds. It is a system in which our brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us that it is reaching conclusions. Whenever we meet someone for the first time, we interview someone for a job, we react to a new idea or face with a decision quickly and under stress we use this “split second” system. When we leap to a decision or have a hunch, our unconsciousness is sifting through the situation in front of us, throwing all that is irrelevant while we zoom in on what really matters. However, it is buried somewhere in our unconscious, and we couldn’t dredge it up.

This skill is not  magically given to a couple of fortunate people. It is a skill that we can all cultivate by ourselves. Snap judgement and first impressions can be educated and controlled. It is possible to learn when to listen and when to be wary of it.

Below are some examples of Thin-slicing:

  • By a “Blink of an Eye” an art historian outperformed months of scientific analysis of a piece of art that turned out to be a forgery.
  • In an experiment with manipulated game cards sweat glands below the skin in the palms of hands of gamblers were measured.  It proved that they knew unconsciously forty cards before they were able to say that they the cards were manipulated. But moreover, they begun to behave accordingly to their unconscious stress reactions, long before they became consciously aware of what adjustments to make.
  • Marriages have a distinct pattern, a kind of DNA that surfaces in any case of meaningful interaction. After training it is possible to “read” or “decode” those patterns and predict divorce within 3 minutes, without  asking husbands and wives questions about the state of their marriage. In another experiment non-experts were given a list of emotions to look for. They predicted with better than 80 percent accuracy which marriages were going to make it.
  • It showed that in a hospital that more information did not lead to better diagnoses. Actually, the role of much in itself relevant factors was small in determining what was happening. An accurate diagnosis could be made without them. It showed also that many times doctors would do better if they knew less about their patients. The very desire for confidence by doing more tests and gathering more information from the patient was precisely what ended up undermining the accuracy of their diagnosis.
  • In an electronic war game one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five out of six amphibious ships were sent to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in the span of just one hour, resulting in the virtual death of over 20.000 US service personnel. It showed the failure of a doctrine which is called Information Dominance: databases and matrices and methodologies for systematically understanding the intentions and capabilities of the enemy. The conducting of a thoroughly rational and rigorous analysis that covered every conceivable contingency apparently destroyed the capabilities of rapid cognition.

First impressions are notorious difficult to put into words. Some people always make a note of the first word that goes through their heads. In others a visual image  imposes itself automatically. Some people  get it hot or cold. Others experience abdominal or stomach spasm.  Others experience a strong emotion or get dizzy. 

Sliced kiwi

The information is in a thin-slice

It is interesting to ponder about the consequences of living in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. That it is much easier to listen to scientists and lawyers because they could provide pages and pages of documentation and conclusions than “reading your inner state”. 

Could we design “structures of spontaneity” where improvisation, without a script or a plot,  and reacting to the environment is less calculated and rationalized but instead promote picking up instinctively  a truth?

Could we develop intuition systematically?

Trust or Trustworthiness? – Thinkibility Boost

trust 2

Trust or Trustworthiness?

When searching for ideas for our forthcoming book about Information  & Feelings, a sequel to Positive & Negative in the serie Thinkibility – Thinking about Thinking, Creativity Innovation and Design we stumbled on a broad range of emotions and feelings.

If you search this blog on keywords like emotion, feelings and intuition you will find some noteworthy explorations of what Edward de Bono calls Red Hat Thinking. Today we will explore the social construct of trust.

In our opinion trust is basically a non-rational phenomena, yet not irrational, nevertheless,  it should be carefully handled.

Wikipedia describes Trust as “One party (trustor) is willing to rely on the actions of another party (trustee); the situation is directed to the future. In addition, the trustor (voluntarily or forcefully) abandons control over the actions performed by the trustee. As a consequence, the trustor is uncertain about the outcome of the other’s actions; he can only develop and evaluate expectations. The uncertainty involves the risk of failure or harm to the trustor if the trustee will not behave as desired.”

Trust plays an important, perhaps decisive role in relations between people and groups, but also in the relation to governments, institutions, judges.  Often it is said that economic growth relies heavily on how traders trust each other. Trust even plays a role in dealing with material artifacts and technology. By trusting someone we can rely on her, allowing us to concentrate our actions and thinking on other subjects. Trust is a tool for efficiency and specialization.

Nowadays there is a moral call for Rebuilding Trust. There has even been a TEDx conference around this theme organized by the  Radboud University in the Netherlands. For an overview of the variety on subjects and the speakers, look here.

But we came across a much more constructive term when we are discussing the concept of  Trust. It is about Trusthworthiness. In general, in order for trust to be earned, worth and integrity must be proven over time.

A good overview of standard thinking and misconceptions about trust is given by Onora O’Neill in her TEDx presentation “What we don’t understand about trust”. Strongly recommended notwithstanding the sometime what boring way of presentation. Watch it.


Trust is not about attitudes. It is about judgement. It is about giving usable evidence that one is trustworthy.

Observe The Thinking – Use Thinking Vocabular

Part 2

For this Thinkibility Boost we invite you to reflect on an insight we recently got.

While we are at the brink of being locked into a possible World War III, it is amazing and baffling that neither opinion-leaders nor commentators in the media regardless their positions, opinions or views on the conflict in Syria, analyze the thinking of the parties and persons involved.

What are the statements being made?

By whom are they made?

What are the arguments?

What are or could be the hidden value and factual assumptions?

What evidences for the reasoning are put in?

We have nowhere came across in newspapers or commentaries on TV the use of concepts that describe the thinking or the use of some kind of  a  “thinking vocabulary”, like terms as

and many others, as for example suggested by Kahneman.

Kahneman concludes that we have developed poor tools and that we are missing a vocabulary to think and to communicate about our thinking. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he shows us some some hilarious examples of this Thinking Vocabulary. See also our blog post  Reasoning and Intuition.

Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis are only a few examples that showed poor thinking with disastrous results. There are also more recent but not yet studied cases of blundering into human, political and military disasters.

There are lots of analysis: political, economical, strategic and even ethical. However, it is disappointing that nobody –  laymen, thinkers, researchers in decision theory, philosophers or  scholars in group processes- points to the kind of  thinking that is used by the main actors.

However, we found one exception in a paper by George Lakoff  in which he indicates the framing and the use of several metaphors in discussions  to justify a war against Syria.: “Obama Re-frames Syria: Metaphor and War Revisited.

We need more Thinking Observers of this kind.