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Jonathan Fader, Ph.D.
Jonathan Fader Ph.D.

Summit Fever: Groupthink and The 2008 K2 Tragedy

The Summit: The mountain climbing movie that asks us what went wrong in 2008.

Image Now Films
Source: Image Now Films

People interviewed in the movie, people at the Q&A, people everywhere wanted to know what happened at the summit. What is summit fever and how did this happen? Well, you’ll have to peep the movie if you want the exciting full story.

But here are my thoughts about how decision making can become impaired in these high pressure situations.

The first, most basic explanation is the physical environment. We all have impairments in judgment when we are oxygen deprived and our sympathetic nervous system is in a constant state of arousal. Additionally after climbing for 12 hours, exhaustion can take its toll. Lastly there is a huge component of goal seeking. Many climbers have been training for months and therefore have huge personal and sometimes financial investments in reaching the top. Also, once close to the top, the typical risk and sensation seeking climber will find it more difficult to turn back.

Secondly, the more complex explanation has less to do with the individual climber but more to do with the team. In this situation and those like it there is usually an element of Groupthink. Groupthink is an idea that was advanced by Irving Janis. It describes the process in which people are driven to conform to group opinions or beliefs. If, in your perception, your opinion is different from the larger group of climbers you may be psychologically inclined to conform to the group’s actions or decisions even if they seem to be dangerous. When you combine the aforementioned physiological variables with groupthink you have a deadly combination that may result in the tragedies depicted in The Summit.

What can be done about groupthink? How do you change that behavior? I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Meredith Belbin, a leading expert on teams, regarding team strategies that can help to prevent groupthink. He stresses that clarity of team roles are essential for optimal performance, “Teams work well in so far as each member has a role with an acknowledged part to play in the work of the team”. In addition, Dr. Belbin recommends a safeguard of the group agreeing to assign the role of a “Monitor Evaluator” who undertakes the role of "risk assessor”.

Here are some other thoughts that can help your team avoid groupthink and other dangerous situations:

  1. Identify a “devil’s advocate” ("Monitor Evaluator" in Dr. Belbin’s language) on the team whose role is to question anything that seems like a potential risk that is being overlooked.
  2. Create the expectations that the group will question the norm.
  3. Discuss groupthink at regular team meetings and have a brief team check in to ensure that there are no important dissenting opinions.
  4. If you are the group leader, assure the team regularly that they will not be penalized for sharing their reservations.

All in all, The Summit was an inspiring tale of those that seek to reach a new pinnacle in sport. Hopefully, it will be a call towards understanding how teams work under these conditions, helping teams to avoid danger and work more effectively together up all sorts of mountains.

Be sure to follow Dr. Fader on Twitter.

About the Author
Jonathan Fader, Ph.D.

Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., is a psychologist and an assistant professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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