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Group Dynamics: The Politics of Risk

I’ve just come back from a ski tour in the Silvretta region of the Alps, which spans the border of Austria and Switzerland between the towns of Klosters and Ischgl. Here is the location of the Wiesbadener Hutte in Austria where we stayed on our third night of the  tour.

These ski-tours require careful preparation and an experienced guide. At this altitude, over untracked snow, there is a constant risk of avalanches, bad weather or of falling into a crevasse. Any single event, or succession of small mistakes can lead to disaster. Over the past few years I have started to venture off-piste without a guide with a group of friends. Now we are making crucial decisions in a group, such as which route to take, analysing the weather, avalanche risk and other signs.

Heading toward the summit of Piz Buin, having crossed the Silvretta Glacier

My question to you is this: Is a group of off-piste skiers likely to be more or less risk averse than an individual off-piste skier?

To answer this question let’s analyse the dynamics of the group. Are these people natural risk takers or generally risk averse?

Off-piste skiers are risk-takers; some might even consider them adrenalin junkies who get a thrill from being in the danger zone. In this situation the more risk takers there are in a group, the higher the risk threshold of the group. A group of risk takers will be inclined to take more risk.

Risk mitigation: crevasse rescue training with our mountain guide Remo Baltermia

Now consider a group of accountants or actuaries;  would their group decisions become more or less risk averse than as individuals? Accountants are stereotypically risk averse (I acknowledge this is a sweeping statement). If the stereotype holds for this particular group the risk threshold of the group is lowered and they become more risk averse.

This is just one example of “group think” (Janis, 1972) where people may be afraid of introducing conflicting opinions in a group. This is one of the reasons why companies tend form cross-functional teams or may even use personality tests when selecting team members to ensure there is a divergence of opinion.

In our group of off-piste skiers we are aware of this problem of group dynamics and this forms part of our discussions when decision-making. However, I think that the most effective form of risk reduction for our group is the frequent messages and phone-calls from wives/girlfriends throughout our tours telling us to “be careful”.

Further reading:

Janis, I. (1972) Victims of Groupthink. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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