Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Brainstorming: myths that hamstring business

Edited by Jill Wright,

An article in this month's issue of the British Journal of Psychology reminded me of one of the myths frequently identified by our team of organisational psychologists that can hamstring business.

It re-ran an article from its September 2006 edition in which it advised businesses looking for fresh ideas to resist the temptation to hold a group brainstorming session.

"Time and again," it warned, "research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group."

The article quoted Professor Bernard Nijstad, then at the University of Amsterdam, but now based at the University of Groningen, who looked at the reasons for the false belief that people are more creative in groups - a phenomenon dubbed by psychologists the "illusion of group productivity".

Nijstad suggested that it's because when we're in a group, other people are talking, the pressure isn't always on us and so we're less aware of all the times that we fail to think of a new idea. "By contrast, when we're working alone, and we can't think of anything, there's no avoiding the fact that we're failing."

Another possible reason is a phenomenon called "memory confusion" - the idea that after working in groups people subsequently mistake other people's ideas for their own and "social comparison", the idea that in groups people are able to see how difficult everyone else has found it to come up with ideas too.

Way back in 2000, Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Business Psychology Unit at University College London wrote a fascinating article in Business Strategy Review on the myth of group brainstorming, in which he outlined the history of a bad idea and warned organisations, "If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.

"Groups help acceptance of the decision. But when the climate is competitive and time is of the essence, use individuals working alone."

That comment about group acceptance is one valid reason for a business to use a group brainstorming session. When people participate in a group decision-making process, they are more likely to support the outcome.

Furnham suggested some techniques to make brainstorming groupsmore productive, including insisting group members initially brainstorm alone in writing, and bring a certain number of ideas to the meeting.

About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.