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January 13, 2012

Groupthink and Economics

In today’s NY Times op-ed, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” Susan Cain bemoans the fact that many workplaces and schools champion the idea of teamwork and group projects. The article points out that there is little scientific evidence that better ideas or greater achievements are produced in groups. It actually may be the opposite. “Privacy makes us more productive,” says Cain.

This is interesting, but not terribly surprising to anyone who has sat in a corporate “brainstorming” session. Cain says that group brainstorm sessions suffer from groupthink: “People… instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own…”

A neuroscientist, Gregory Berns, discovered that is partly chemical. We activate a small organ in our brain that is associated with the fear of rejection. However, the one exception that Cain points out is “electronic brainstorming.” On the Internet, it appears that groups outperform individuals, especially really large groups. Presumably, this is because we lose our fear and therefore can combine what is powerful about individual thought with the sheer number of ideas from large groups. Cain writes of electronic brainstorming, “It’s a place where we can be alone together – and that is precisely what gives it power.”

Now, you are thinking, how does this relate to economics? After reading Cain’s piece, I was reminded of an econ blogging session I attend at last week’s American Economics Association conference here in Chicago. Panelists made the case that blogs’ more informal nature allowed current events and current policy prescriptions to be discussed with various levels of depth in a remarkably short period of time. A panelist noted that today, economic journals are of little use to economic policy-makers whereas blogs are helpful in flushing out ideas quickly and efficiently. The panelist also alluded to the fact that by virtue of the number of contributions, blogs have avoided what many academic journals have been accused of --groupthink.

The idea of further democratizing journals and economic policy discussion captured my imagination and left me wondering how we could best use “electronic brainstorming” and other methods of electronic discussion. Electronic publication is one thing; finding ways to capitalize on large groups of experts’ ideas is still quite awe-inspiring and difficult.

What do you think about the groupthink dynamic and electronic brainstorming? For my econ friends, what is the middle ground? What could the field do better to try and generate the best ideas and promote interdisciplinary work? And finally, if you are an educator, how has the Internet changed your group assignments? Have you found a way to encourage “a place where we can be alone together”?

Posted by Cindy at January 13, 2012 10:43 PM

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