Mobmentality
Text by Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales, author of the books Everyday Survival and Deep Survival

Illustration by David Plunkert

The power of groupness is not to be underestimated. It has been the downfall of organizations, blinding them to evidence that was there for everyone to see.

In the 1930s, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) was the most popular grocery chain in the United States, with nearly 16,000 stores. Its strategy was to focus on a single need: cheap groceries. After all, the Depression was on. A&P introduced self-service, no-frills,
cash-and-carry food with no credit, no deliveries, and no premiums.

By the end of World War II it was one of the biggest companies in the world. Then something strange happened: Leftover production capacity from the war created new industries. In that booming economy, people wanted more than cheap, plentiful groceries. They wanted more choices, more convenience, exotic foods, and new products almost weekly. They wanted bright lights, flashy decor, loud music, and even a pharmacy.

Ralph Burger, who ran A&P, dedicated himself to carrying on the company tradition, regardless of evidence that it was a doomed strategy. As Jim Collins put it in his book Good to Great, Burger lived by the motto “You can’t argue with a hundred years of success.” Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, A&P fell into decline and ceased to exist in many regions. The strangest thing about this is that A&P had the same information that other companies, notably Kroger, had. The world had changed. The old model wouldn’t work anymore. A&P had even opened an experimental store called the Golden Key that succeeded using the supermarket model we know today. The information clashed with what they believed to be true, so they closed the store and ignored the information, while Kroger went on to become one of the largest grocery chains in America.

What A&P did is not uncommon, whether in business, in science, or even in the wilderness. Behavior like that, seemingly contrary and nonsensical, stems at least in part from a phenomenon that psychologists call “groupness.” Coined by a social psychologist at Oxford University named Henri Tajfel, the term refers to the tendency of various animals, including humans, to form in-groups. When
the in-group encounters individuals from outside the group, the default response is hostility. People protect their group from outsiders and from outside influences. For example, we will reject information, habits, and culture from other groups.

The power of groupness is not to be underestimated. If a group invests a lot of effort in a goal and succeeds, its boundaries become stronger, and it tends to become even more hostile to outside influences. This may not be overt hostility. It may simply be a subtle and unconscious tendency to reject anything from another group.

NASA has lost two space shuttles, costing the lives of 14 crew members, and groupness was at least partly to blame. The astounding effort and success of the Apollo program had created a culture like that at A&P. NASA defined itself as technically excellent—“the perfect place,” as one researcher called it. They put a man on the moon, and it was hard to argue with success. The insidious message was: We know what we’re doing. The corollary to that is: You can’t tell me anything I don’t already know.

By the time components of the space shuttle began failing (the O-rings in the case of Challenger and the foam insulation in the case of Columbia), NASA managers were so blinded by groupness that they could not recognize that those malfunctions were clear signs of impending disaster.

The official report on the crash of Columbia said, “External criticism and doubt . . . reinforced the will to ‘impose the party line vision on the environment, not to reconsider it . . .’ This in turn led to ‘flawed decision making, self deception, introversion and diminished curiosity about the world outside the perfect place.’” Like NASA, A&P was blinded by groupness to evidence that was there for everyone to see. Kroger executives said, “We did extensive research, and the data came back loud and clear: The supercombination stores were the way of the future.”

Groupness has been the downfall of many a good corporation over the years. Researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management studied the relationship between how long a particular group had been together and how well it communicated with outside sources. Newly formed groups communicated much more with outsiders and also performed much better than older groups, which became more insular and dysfunctional over time.

And groupness can also cause problems when people enter hazardous environments. A legendary accident in Alaska involved a ten-man team of British soldiers, who set out to climb 20,320-foot Mount McKinley on June 4, 1998. At their mandatory briefing, the rangers at Talkeetna recommended the easiest route, called the West Buttress (Grade 2), because some of the team members had very little experience with the glacier crossings and ice climbing that would be necessary on other routes.

Nevertheless, the army team ignored the advice and decided to climb the West Rib, which is Grade 4.
The rangers told them to spend several days at 16,200 feet to acclimatize. They spent only one day before their attempt to summit. The team took 12 hours to ascend 2,800 feet over easy terrain. They then attempted a highly technical finish that even experienced climbers usually avoid.

As they proceeded in three roped teams, one man fell, dragging the others on his rope down with him. All three people on the rope were injured, but one, Steve Brown, suffered head injuries, went into shock, and became delirious. In all, the group split up a total of seven times, as various members tried to climb down or rescue one another. The expedition descended into chaos as several others fell and were injured. The final rescue wasn’t completed until June 22, nearly three weeks after the soldiers had set out, by which time two climbers had spent four nights partially exposed in bivouac bags during bad weather.

The military uses groupness deliberately to create strong bonds among its members, from the squad level right up through the entire organization. Groupness is used specifically to reinforce self-confidence in the group’s abilities. That can-do attitude, along with the tendency to reject information from the outside, no doubt contributed to the British team’s decisions throughout the incident, from selecting the harder route to attempting various descending routes, despite having no practical knowledge of them. Two of the climbers, one already seriously injured from a 300-foot fall, attempted to descend at a particularly challenging spot and fell another 1,500 feet, sustaining yet more injuries.

The groupness effect, strengthened by a few chance successes, can begin to blur the line between true success in achieving a goal sensibly and a close call that simply didn’t turn into disaster. Just because you get away with something doesn’t mean it was a good idea. In addition, just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work in the future. Whatever the pursuit, it’s important to be aware of the power of groupness, to seek good information from outside the group, and to make sure that what seems like success is not just a close call.

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