‘Groupthink’ and the Media/Political response to the “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber” advert.

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By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

On 14 October, I had a feature published in The Conversation on the HM Government Cyber First advert that depicted a female ballet dancer under the strapline: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber, (she just doesn’t know it yet)”.

My piece went against the media backlash which resulted in the advert’s withdrawal. The media reaction was negative. The advert was labelled as “crass” by Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary. In the House of Lords, Lord Stevenson proclaimed that “There is the extraordinary advert about looking for your next job when you are a ballet dancer and there is no reason why you should change, suggesting that the right thing to do is to move into cyber”. In the House of Commons, Owen Thompson (SNP) stated that “Forget the dedication, blood, sweat and tears and years of professional training for a career in the arts, and forget following passions—get stuck behind a computer. It is a worthy job, no doubt, but is that really the message we want to send to our aspiring young talent?”

The media and political response to this advert highlighted some interesting aspects of group psychology. There is no reason why a ballet dancer should not develop a follow-on career in cyber security. A dance injury can occur at any time forcing a transition to another career. This second career might be dance-related, but for some dancers it is perhaps too painful to stay embedded in the dance world.

The social media response to this advert is partly about the power of the crowd in setting the media agenda. It is perhaps to be expected that both an elected Member of Parliament and a Peer of the Realm followed the popular misreading of this advert. All they were doing is following the crowd rather than thinking for themselves. There are two points to consider here.

First, that too often there is an immediate response, and this initial response shapes, influences and distorts subsequent readings. An opinion that is popular or dominant is not necessarily a correct reading. Reacting against popular opinion might mean that one is ignored or becomes exposed to the power of the crowd. It is important to remember that ‘difference’ plays a key role in explaining bullying.

Second, there is a danger that a popular account of an event reflects the perspectives of a more dominant and homogeneous group. In this case, diversity matters. Groups with diverse memberships tend to make more objective and evidence-based decisions and are less-influenced by group psychology. This has important implications for the composition of teams and company boards.

An academic paper on racially diverse groups provides important insights into the dynamics of racially diverse or homogeneous groups. This paper reports an experiment in which groups of four participants had to evaluate the profiles of two pupils applying to a highly ranked university. Some of these groups of four were racially diverse and some homogeneous. The outcome was that in racially similar groups, participants could be persuaded to select the weaker applicant. The more diverse groups were much more unlikely to fall into this trap.

Another study explored the failure of American banks in 2009-10. This revealed that the banks that failed had more bankers on their boards than the banks that survived. The bankers tended to rely too much on their experience, and they tended to be too over-optimistic regarding their assessment of their ability to guide the lending process. Those without banking expertise were much more cautious.

The dominant reading of the cyber advert is another reflection of the dangers associated with homogeneous groups and conformity. In his novel 1984 George Orwell labelled this ‘Groupthink’ or a process by which people rationalise their conformity to a dominant account. The challenge for companies, politicians, citizens, and journalists is to be very wary of ‘groupthinking’ and to have the courage to come to their own reading of an event.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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