Risky Shift, a groupthink exploitable vulnerability

The group trolley cart wheels really do sometimes have a pull toward risk.

The Risky Shift Effect is the term for how groups sometimes veer toward groupthink accepting and promoting more risk over time.1 The group trolley cart wheels do sometimes have a pull toward risk, pushing the envelope, and sometimes things go sideways off the rails. Some won’t notice it at all, and that’s because they’re going along with the shift. Others will notice the shift and feel compelled to go along with it anyway. I have noticed this tendency, and I’ve heard many such stories from others. There are many examples of groups veering toward normalizing more permissive behaviour over time.2

This is true at many workplaces, but also in social groups, families, political parties, advocacy organizations, and niche interest clubs. The permissive norms are sometimes driven by leadership3 or by those in positions of power or who have sway within groups. Counterintuitively, it sometimes even happens in groups where the people have specifically organized a support group as a safe space as a refuge from the relentless two-sidesism and controversy, and to escape the practice of equalizing all opinions as valid. Over time the space becomes less safe, and less of a refuge.

Generally a group is formed on some basis of agreement on some common bond or topic. This is a really helpful networking strategy to share information, resources, and moral support. But then sometimes a group’s dynamic switches. People start confessing naughty diversion from a core value of the group. It may be about pushing the envelope on the rules, testing boundaries of others in the group, or because they want absolution from their peers on their own change in direction. Or maybe they want someone to pull them back away from the edge. Sometimes people are invited into the group and accepted despite not sharing the original values of the group. Sometimes it’s a bad actor luxuriating in manipulating the group. But often it seems like someone who was temporarily caught up in the thrill of a taboo.

And sometimes, for some reason, instead of urging caution, or calling for making amends for a transgression, or shepherding the waylaid to prevent such missteps in future — instead, a number of people in the group, often with authority within the group, will rush to comfort the transgressor,4 and grant them that absolution and acceptance without even any attempt or request for atonement. “Victims, perpetrators, and witnesses may display betrayal blindness in order to preserve relationships, institutions, and social systems upon which they depend.”5 Sometimes deindividuation6 becomes a default scapegoat. 

Anyone willing to acknowledge frankly the elephant in the room is persona non grata. Many will squeeze past the ginormous animal in tight room, while others feel they are being helpful by saying “Ooh, I wonder where that big piece of poo came from – mind your step!”

One thing that never seems to happen within group polarization7 is people in the elite inner circles pushing the permissive shift rushing to comfort the harmed in the group. The pleas of those wronged are sometimes blatantly ignored or even ridiculed. Often someone in a position of esteem specifically calls for everyone in the group to be accepting and “non judgmental” toward the offenders, sometimes on the grounds of tone policing,8 which means not only are the offenders not required to make any changes, the aggrieved are actually expected to be the ones to do so in order to conform to the groupthink.9  Sometimes a strawman is made of the rules so that they could be disregarded. Sometimes those pushing to abandon order will disavow responsibility simply by claiming the rules were sufficient or that no rules were ever even needed. A “tyranny of the structureless”10 leads to gaslighting when key actors in the group deny any responsibility and eschew formal leadership roles or structure is hinted at but not formally acknowledged. 

The people who sought refuge in the group in the first place are forced into silence or at least to side conversations. Transgressors who confess problematic behaviour engender an outpouring of support and reassurance, and any objections are denounced, even if the bad actors refuse to make amends or change course. If some people do continue to espouse the original values of the group, eventually being in the minority speaking up becomes tiresome, or even with the risk of being chastised as “divisive” or seen as a trouble maker. So anyone in that position usually just leaves of their own accord, sometimes to form splinter groups, leaving the original group with even less diversity of voice.

I’ve watched this happen to myself and others, and I’ve heard similar stories from other people. Asserting autonomy is sometimes dismissed as controlling or asking for accessibility accommodations is mischaracterized as drama. Identity politics might be employed as a wedge issue or in order to reverse victimize11 and so deflect criticism or perceived attacks.  Once something becomes normalized within a group, the mere exposure effect12 takes over, and a feedback loop takes hold.13

The risky shift effect doesn’t always progress all the way to completely throwing out all caution. A group polarization tendency toward more caution is also possible. There is no agreement as to how to entirely control it though because the mechanism is unclear.14

If the most vulnerable people with the most to lose from risk have leadership roles in the group, this may prevent the shift. As Ayanna Pressley said, “The people closest to the pain, should be the closest to the power.”15

There are some groups I’ve watched this turn taken several times only to be yanked back from that course and swayed back to stability. I’d like to think it was because of committed people who courageously speak up, despite it being difficult, and I do think that’s an important ingredient. But it most often seems put right by external input that causes a veering back on course. For example, a new out-group attack on a shared value that the in-group can rally around in opposition.

The desire to belong is a natural one, dating back thousands of years. We’re still the same species that depend on each other for survival, and it was not so long ago that being outcast from a community could lead to certain death. As Adam Kinzinger said, “I’ve come to believe that people less fear death than they do being kicked out of their social circle.”16 

At least we need to support each other in our own groups. Will this drive away some of the free-wheeling types that may want lax rules? Yes. But surely the basis of the group, and the security of its members on that basis, should be prioritized over growth for its own sake or a desire of freedom from the responsibility that comes with rules or structure. 



Avalanche Journal Blog: The Risky Shift Phenomenon: What Is It, Why Does It Occur and What are the Implications for Outdoor Recreationists?

This phenomenon was first discovered as part of a master’s thesis by Stoner in 1961 and refers to the tendency for decisions made in groups to be less conservative than the decision of the average group member (Shaw, 1976). The results were initially met with surprise in the scientific community as they contradicted some prevailing theories of the time, most notably the “normalization theory” which stated that group decisions would reflect an average of opinions and norms. The 1960’s saw a flurry of research interest in the area and it was indeed confirmed that group risky shifts occurred. The shift was demonstrated in countries around the world and with many kinds of group participants (Forsyth, 1990).


The Guardian Why Britons are tolerating sky-high Covid rates – and why this may not last by Hannah Devlin

“The idea that everyone is accepting the new normal is very dangerous,” said Prof Stephen Reicher, a psychologist at the University of St Andrews. “Then you reinforce a sense of fatalism.” Reicher points to a wealth of evidence in psychology showing that our behaviour can be shaped to a greater extent by what we think others think than by our own beliefs. “If your attitude is at odds with a perceived social norm, you’re less likely to act on it,” he said.


The Washington Post: Have Public Health Officials Just Given Up on Covid-19? by Faye Flam

And people are taking cues from those around them. Social signals are really important, he said, so it’s very difficult to keep your guard up when others are going back to normal. Behavior can change in a cascading way. People wonder why they should bother if nobody else is. “That’s straight out of basic psychology of collective action,” said Bang Petersen.


MEDPageToday: Who’s Really the Victim Here? — It’s time to end DARVO behavior in the healthcare workplace by Resa E. Lewiss, MD, David G. Smith, PhD, Shikha Jain, MD, W. Brad Johnson, PhD, and Jennifer Freyd, PhD

Perpetrators use DARVO because it works. In one study researchers found that targets of DARVO were more likely to blame themselves. Self-blame is associated with self-silencing. In another study, researchers found that observers of DARVO tended to doubt the credibility of the true victim, believing the perpetrator instead. There is not yet systematic data on what makes certain institutions and certain people more likely to DARVO. Yet, there appear to be relevant characteristics associated with other types of harassment, and the field of medicine checks all the boxes: high prestige, male-dominated institutions and industries, hierarchical leadership structures, inadequate safeguards for employees and trainees, and a climate which tolerates harassment.


What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is Betrayal Trauma Theory? By Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD

Betrayal Blindness and Institutional Betrayal: Betrayal blindness is the unawareness, not-knowing, and forgetting exhibited by people towards betrayal. The term “betrayal blindness” was introduced by Freyd (1996), and expanded in Freyd (1999) and Freyd and Birrell (2013) in the context of Betrayal Trauma Theory. This blindness may extend to betrayals that are not traditionally considered “traumas,” such as adultery, inequities in the workplace and society, etc. Victims, perpetrators, and witnesses may display betrayal blindness in order to preserve relationships, institutions, and social systems upon which they depend.


Crowd psychology From Wikipedia

Crowd behavior is heavily influenced by the loss of responsibility of the individual and the impression of universality of behavior, both of which increase with crowd size.


Group polarization From Wikipedia

In social psychology, group polarization refers to the tendency for a group to make decisions that are more extreme than the initial inclination of its members. These more extreme decisions are towards greater risk if individuals’ initial tendencies are to be risky and towards greater caution if individuals’ initial tendencies are to be cautious.[1] The phenomenon also holds that a group’s attitude toward a situation may change in the sense that the individuals’ initial attitudes have strengthened and intensified after group discussion, a phenomenon known as attitude polarization.


Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA) Tone-Policing and the Assertion of Authority

At its core, tone-policing is first an argumentative move sideways and then a stall. It first shifts the focus from the content of the conversation to the tone, language, or manner of discussion (as the quote above says) and then – unlike other interventions about tone – policing announces that the shift cannot be reversed until tone is addressed. The tone-policer doesn’t just declare that their interlocutor’s tone is inappropriate and heightened (usually because it is too hostile, adversarial, or aggressive, upset, or irrational). They insist that the conversation cannot continue until the speaker adjusts it. It often involves a further demand – implicit or explicit – that the interlocutor address their infraction with some apology or other gesture of accountability before things can proceed.


Investopedia: What Is Groupthink? Definition, Characteristics, and Causes

Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of individuals reaches a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the consequences or alternatives. Groupthink is based on a common desire not to upset the balance of a group of people. This desire creates a dynamic within a group whereby creativity and individuality tend to be stifled in order to avoid conflict.



This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.


Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, Volume 29, 2020 – Issue 8: Special Issue on Offenders – Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO): What Is the Influence on Perceived Perpetrator and Victim Credibility? Sarah Harsey & Jennifer J. Freyd – Published online: 08 Jun 2020

Perpetrators of interpersonal violence sometimes use denial, engage in personal attacks on victim credibility, and assume a victimized role (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender; DARVO) to deflect blame.


Mere Exposure Effect, by Katja Falkenbach, Gleb Schaab, Oliver Pfau, Magdalena Ryfa, Bahadir Birkan

The mere exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things or people that are more familiar to them than others. Repeated exposure increases familiarity. This effect is therefore also known as the familiarity effect. The earliest known research on the effect was conducted by Gustav Fechner in 1876. The effect was also documented by Edward Titchener and described as the glow of warmth one feels in the presence of something familiar.


Australian Army Occasional Paper No. 8 The Effectiveness of Influence Activities in Information Warfare by CASSANDRA BROOKER

This propaganda feedback loop demonstrates the power of inundation, repetition, emotional/social contagions, and personality bias confirmations, as well as demonstrating behaviours of people preferring to access entertaining content that does not require ‘System 2’ critical thought. Audiences encountered multiple versions of the same story, propagated over months, through their favoured media sources, to the point where both recall and credibility were enhanced, fact-checkers were overwhelmed and a ‘majority illusion’ was created.


Defaults, normative anchors, and the occurrence of risky and cautious shifts, Stephan Jagau, Theo Offerman

Choice shifts occur when individuals advocate a risky (safe) decision when acting as part of a group even though they prefer a safe (risky) decision when acting as individuals. Even though research in psychology and economics has produced a mass of evidence on this puzzling phenomenon, there is no agreement about which mechanism produces choice shifts.


@AyannaPressley on Twitter

“The people closest to the pain, should be the closest to the power.” – Ayanna Pressley


PBS FRONTLINE Adam Kinzinger Interview

“I’ve come to believe that people less fear death than they do being kicked out of their social circle.” – Adam Kinzinger, U.S. representative, Republican, Illinois

Image is of a grocery store aisle with a shopping cart in it, the wheels prominent on the tiled floor and slightly turned wheels at the front. The top says the risky shift effect and the caption below says the group trolley cart wheels really do sometimes have a pull toward risk and below that it says steer purposefully
Image is of a grocery store aisle with a shopping cart in it, the wheels prominent on the tiled floor and slightly turned wheels at the front. The top says the risky shift effect and the caption below says the group trolley cart wheels really do sometimes have a pull toward risk and below that it says steer purposefully