The Scary Implications of Groupthink

Today in my Public Speaking class, I built a fort out of spaghetti and stuck a marshmallow on top.

The exercise was preparation for our group presentation unit. Next week, three of my peers and I will present on a topic of our choice, and today’s exercise was a step in building team chemistry. See the video for reference on the marshmallow experiment itself – it has quite a storied history.

While the exercise itself may be an effective – if unconventional – team-building exercise, the true lessons lie in the statistics. Specific groups of people are consistently far more successful at building marshmallow towers than others. Although you might expect marshmallow tower-building to be a relatively random skill, there is apparently a strong correlation between where a person comes from and that’s person’s ability to (1) work effectively with a team and to (2) visualize and accomplish a goal.

Why? Because certain groups of people think in certain ways. Whether or not we realize it, our environments have outsize effects on how we view the world.

On my way out of class today, one of my classmates brought up this idea with respect to management consulting firms, who hire heavily from Dartmouth. These companies are of course very successful. Yet the type of student they look for often seems to have a distinct profile: while exceptions certainly exist, they tend to focus overwhelmingly on students studying certain subjects or with certain interests.

This makes a lot of sense on many levels. Certainly, some intellectual and academic profiles equip students to solve the kinds of problems management consultants face better than others. But, for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a business looking to solve a problem. What is the value of bringing in a team of objective and highly intelligent consultants?

My understanding is that management consultants provide value in two ways. First these consultants should be good at what they do: give them a problem, and they can logically and rationally find a solution. Second, they provide a new perspective and can see problems in new ways.

But take a closer look at the part about the new perspective. How does this happen if the vast majority of consultants see problems through the same lens? Wouldn’t it be awfully easy to miss things if everyone around you were thinking the same things as you?

I’m especially intrigued by what the results of the marshmallow experience can tell us about this phenomenon. Evidently, groupthink is powerful – the environments that surround us have tremendous effects on the ways we approach problems. Maybe, as my classmate mentioned to me earlier, these kinds of firms should consider this perspective in their hiring practices. It’s hard to dispute that, simply because of selection bias, students from certain backgrounds are often more likely to succeed in these jobs. But maybe students with a different frame of mind can see things others can’t.

About John Michel

Dartmouth senior passionate about strategy, finance, marketing, and education.
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One Response to The Scary Implications of Groupthink

  1. Deborah says:

    Great point, Dartmouthians! I was talking to the managing partner of a financial consulting firm recently who told me that her education and training was as a concert pianist. Certainly, diverse education and experience can lead to many interesting and successful paths in life if one works hard and has an open mind.

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