Risky shift occurs when people change their decisions or opinions to become more extreme and risky when acting as part of a group, compared with acting individually; this is one form of the phenomenon known as group polarization. The result is that group decisions are bolder and more adventurous than those made by individuals alone and even riskier than the average of the individuals’ opinions and decisions before group discussion.
However, sometimes people in groups shift such that the group decision is actually more conservative, which is known as cautious (or conservative) shift. The group’s initial tendency toward risk is important in predicting if risky shift will occur. The direction of the shift (to be more risky or more conservative) tends to be in line with the general direction of group initial viewpoints.
The term risky shift was coined by James Stoner in 1961. To examine group decision making, he asked participants to make decisions about real-life scenarios that involved some amount of risk. Participants first gave their own individual ratings. Then they got together in groups and arrived at a decision together. Following this, participants made their own individual ratings again. Contrary to what was expected, he found that group decisions were more risky.
In addition, the postdiscussion individual decisions also showed a shift toward increased risk. Subsequent research has shown that people in groups may make more risky decisions in a variety of situations including, but not limited to, gambling and consumer behavior, and people in groups can become more prejudiced in their opinions of minorities or more liberal on issues such as feminism.
This risky shift in group decision making may occur for a variety of reasons. First, the individuals with more extreme views may be more confident, committed, and persuasive, compared with the more conservative members of the group. In addition, as people present their arguments to the group members, they may come to hold a stronger belief in their own opinions and, in turn, be willing to make more extreme decisions. These stronger opinions may carry more weight in determining the final decision.
Another reason for the occurrence of risky shift is that the group may fail to consider all available opinions and possibilities. There may be biased filtering and communicating of views, facts, and findings because of motivation by an individual to promote his or her own opinion. This insufficient exploration by the group of costs and benefits of each choice may lead to assumptions in which negative outcomes are overlooked.
Although the goal and desire of committee and group decision making is ultimately to result in more educated, well-rounded, and better decisions, risky shift may be a deterrent to this. In groups such as juries or panels of judges, committees of generals, or boards of directors, as a result of group discussion, the group may choose a more risky option than a single juror or judge, general, or CEO alone would. Unfortunately, in some cases, this may result in poor, even disastrous, decisions and outcomes.
- Isenberg, D. J. (1986). Group polarization: A critical review and meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 1141-1151.
- Johnson, N. R., Stemler, J. G., & Hunter, D. (1977). Crowd behavior as risky shift: A laboratory experiment. Social Psychology Quarterly, 40, 183-187.
- Stoner, J. A. F. (1961). A comparison of individual and group decisions involving risk. Unpublished master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
- Stoner, J. A. F. (1968). Risky and cautious shifts in group decisions: The influence of widely held values. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 4, 442, 459.
- Wallach, M. A., Kogan, N., & Burt, R. B. (1962). Group influence on individual risk taking. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 65, 75-86.