Groupthink and the value of friction (or, Why contrary opinions are helpful)

I read a great article recently about brainstorming, in the late January issue of The New Yorker. Groupthink: The brainstorming myth., by Jonah Lehrer, is about how, despite its popularity as a corporate creativity booster, ‘brainstorming’ is not a terribly creative exercise.  Do you remember brainstorming in school, or maybe at work?  A group is assigned a creative task and told to write down all ideas. Emphasis is on quantity, not quality.  No criticism allowed.  From the article:

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

The author goes on to discuss examples of studies that put the idea of brainstorming to the test, describing one such study where groups of students were given a creative task, then divided into three kinds of groups.  One type of group was the brainstorming group – all ideas should be shared, no criticisms.  Another group was given no instruction – just figure it out.  The third group was told to say whatever came to mind, and were encourage to debate with each other.  Here are the results:

The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about [the subject]. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.

Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

I find this immensely interesting because of a recent comment conversation on my blog with a reader, Nancy, who has a blog of her own.  She commented on my post about Hope as Snake-Oil, offering another perspective on how she perceives the word ‘hope’.

Nancy has an adult daughter, Jessie, with Down Syndrome.  We were chatting (in the comments) after I had read her blog:


I imagine that Jessie herself also guides or frames much of your decision-making. She is an independent young woman with much to say and contribute. And I am guessing the two of you don’t always agree :) So moving forward with anything requires a huge amount of give and take, as in all relationships – perhaps your own personal ‘hopes’ are kept in check by the will and preferences of your daughter.

In my case, the decisions were all mine with no constructive input or feedback from Owen. If I ‘sensed’ a response from him it was all still imagined by my own brain. I think what I’m saying is that some kinds of hope, if unchecked or unchallenged or unexposed to any kind of friction, can do more damage than good.


You are too right about Jessie guiding (sic! grin) us. And that does make it a whole different ballgame. And even when there is speech or some other form of communication we are often such poor listeners (or listen only to our selves, our needs, our unchecked and unquestioned assumptions and expectations) that our garbled translation may be way off the mark. You are so right about that friction and its importance in shaping hope, or in shaping anything. All is in relationship, and some relationships are much more obvious than others.

My point?

  • If parents of severely disabled children only surround themselves with opinions of those who tend to agree, they may be missing a chance for a great idea or creative solution.
  • Most children push back on us as parents.  Require us to continually revise our assumptions and plans in order to accommodate their emerging selves.  Children without that voice will only ever live their lives through the filter of one or two perspectives–the parents’.  Unless the parents actively seek debate.
  • Parent Grand Rounds, anyone?  Somehow, I keep coming back to this.



  1. Jennifer, I don’t quite get this post in the sense that I am not aware of that many parents whose experience is one where they are “surrounded” by people who only tend to agree with them. In my experience, it’s just he opposite and seeking out people with common ground is the hard part. ?

    • Hm. Maybe I mean to say that we tend to only listen to those who will support our prevailing thoughts.

      I remember when Owen was younger – there was a lot of commiserating and sharing with other parents, but little challenge to things I was struggling with. Decisions went unchecked. My opinions were taken as facts. There was no one around with whom to really bitch it out :) I would even go so far as to say that, for the most part, opposing ideas weren’t welcome. A kind of militant thinking took over. “I will always…” “I would never…” I wasn’t curious, nor was I really looking for a solution – I was simply looking to dig in my heels.

      I come back to our g-tube story: I wasn’t able to see Owen was starving unnecessarily until someone fearlessly pointed it out. Granted, I had to be ready to listen and see in order to shift. The connection I’m making here is that I was finally open to listening to what I had originally thought was a dissenting voice. It was a real dialogue where I was called to account for myself, not just a pretend one where I got to reinforce my own viewpoints.

      We’re in a rarified space, here in our little blogging network – I don’t think this level of discourse is the norm.

  2. Jennifer – I stumbled upon your post on facebook, and I like this post because I’ve often felt the same about the idea of only having people around who support your perspective. That’s way too ‘vanilla’ for my wife and I, and we are always talking through as many sides of decisions as we can with our children (two have cp). Our oldest is non-verbal so we are, in many cases, guessing from our perspectives on what she needs, wants, etc.

    I also totally agree about your Parent Grand Rounds post. What a fascinating thought to have parents offering up solutions to common or uncommon problems we face on day-in-day-out basis. A parental think-tank is something that I could get behind and support, and could see where this would threaten people who have spent eight-plus years on scientific studies, clinicals and practicing medicine.

    It’s amazing to me that while international borders ‘separate’ me from other special needs parents that I have found my thoughts to so on par with many of my Canadian counterparts. :) Looking forward to reading more.

    Best, Tim.

    • Thanks for your comment Tim. Great reminder that a) sharing stories and engaging in real dialogue is so important, and b) Canadians rock!

  3. Hi — I thought I posted a comment, but I guess I didn’t.

    I thought this was a great post. I find that it is in the debate that I process things and finally figure out how I feel/think about something. Without the push of the debate (and particularly if something sets me off!!), I don’t get to an end point (or at least a middle point!)

    And I totally agree that early on I was shut down to dissenting views about how I was approaching things. I was so fragile and so exhausted and on a mission that I had to wear blinkers.

  4. You know, I see what you mean. For me it’s been via blogging that new ideas came through. When I was isolated from all view points except the ones that were created between my ex and I, lots went missing. That’s for sure. So, I guess the point is to make certain you don’t isolate yourself.

  5. Hmmm. I know that when my daughter was young and we, in our gut instinct, knew that inclusion was what made sense, it was very hard to find voices that agreed. Dissent (especially at admin level) was the norm. Until, that is, I got the internet and began connecting with others around the world! Still, at that point a very small community, and affirming, but also questioning, always questionning.

    BUT I think sometimes we forget to ask QUESTIONS and instead go straight for answers that we frame as dares. To get the friction that is needed, I think we need to dare to ask questions that invite (really invite) response. While we never hung out a lot with those who had high or complex medical needs, it may be a different frame of mind? I don’t know. We need to wonder together. Ask ‘how can . . . .?” not will you or we can’t. And at the most basic, need to ensure the most basic (i.e., food, shelter, love, belonging, growth etc….)

    • Hey Nancy! Welcome back – glad I didn’t scare you away by calling you out like this :) Really appreciate your perspectives – thanks for commenting.

      • Took me a while to come back and then find it! I love being challenged (i.e., made to think). ‘m working with this friction thing now . . . both in life as mom and life as in I AM or just being . . . in the world. Also thinking about friendship, and I think the two are related.

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