Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Risky shift motivation

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Risky shift motivation:
What motivates risky shift?

Overview[edit | edit source]

When a number of like-minded individuals come together and discuss risky matters pertaining to their group’s aims or interests it may be assumed that any decisions made would be reflected in an overall average of the group’s individual positions. However, various studies over the years have found that, in reality, there tends to exist a shift upwards in the risk taking behaviour of individuals once the discussion in a group setting has occurred. This phenomenon is referred to as risky shift and has been seen to occur in a multitude of group-based scenarios.

While it is a simple to observe the behaviour it is much more difficult to identify a single underlying cause or motivation for it. Over the years there have existed a number of theories that attempt to describe what it is that caused this phenomenon, as well as criticisms of each of them.

This chapter initially outlines what the phenomenon is and then discusses various theories around what it is that may motivate risky shift. The chapter then briefly discuss ways in which risky shift can present itself in various aspects of society, and how its effects may be manipulated or controlled by groups and individuals.

Focus questions:
  • What is Risky Shift?
  • What motivates Risky Shift?
  • What are practical examples of Risky Shift?

What is Risky Shift?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Risky Shift occurs when a group collectively decides to take more extreme action, than if an individual would decide to without the group present.

In social psychology, the risky shift phenomenon occurs when an individual changes their personal opinions on a matter to something more risky or extreme when they are acting as part of a group as compared to their position as a lone individual. This shift is one half of another phenomenon known as group polarisation. In group polarisation, being in a group which shares the same initial beliefs as the individual will cause the individual to shift their position on a matter either to be more risky or conservative, depending on the groups established position (Myers & Lamm, 1976). With risky shift this usually results in all individuals increasing the risk levels they are willing to take, and in turn results in the mean risk-taking level to increase for the group as a whole.

Stoner’s Study

This phenomenon was named by James Stoner in 1961. The initial study was focused around presenting a choice dilemma to individuals whereby there would exist two potential options, one with a high risk but a high reward, and one with a low risk but only a moderate reward. The subjects would give their individual ratings on their assessment of the risk. They were then placed into groups where they would discuss the matter and come to a joint decision. They were then asked for their own individual ratings again. Stoner found that the group decision was indeed more risky than the average of the participants[grammar?] initial assessment. After the group deliberation risk taking behaviour had been found to increase. This study had found the contrary of his initial hypothesis[explain?].

Myers and Arenson (1972) had found that this phenomenon was not limited to an increase in risky behaviour, but in fact was more accurately described as a shift towards the extremity of a groups[grammar?] initial position on a polarising matter. This chapter focuses on risky shift, or the polarisation that encourages risky behaviours as opposed to neutralising them.

Sample Choice Dilemma Questionnaire


A woman, Mrs. X, is 45 years old, currently married and has 3 teenage children with her partner. Mrs. X has recently been diagnosed with an illness that is quite rare and as such only experimental treatments are currently available to her. If the illness is left untreated, she will have on average 5 years until she succumbs to it. However, the experimental procedure, if successful may cure her completely. It is necessary to note that the procedure is complex and in turn dangerous which means there exists the slight possibility that she may not survive through it. The procedure would have to be conducted in the very near future if it has any chance of being effective.

Choose which option you think is most accurate
[]The chances are 1 in 10 that the procedure will be worthwhile.
[]The chances are 3 in 10 that the procedure will be worthwhile.
[]The chances are 5 in 10 that the procedure will be worthwhile.
[]The chances are 7 in 10 that the procedure will be worthwhile.
[]The chances are 9 in 10 that the procedure will be worthwhile.
[]Mrs. X should not undertake the procedure no matter what the probabilities are.

Theoretical Approaches[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Social Comparison[edit | edit source]

Social comparison theory is based on the idea that as individuals who form part of society, we tend to see riskier behaviours as admirable when compared to more cautious ones. As people want to act in a manner that is socially desirable (Fromkin, 1970), when they are placed in a social situation, they may choose to propose riskier ideas than they may actually identify with.

People tend to try and appear more virtuous or desirable then they believe themselves to be, and one way of doing so is by expressing to others that their views on a matter are in the same direction as the rest of the group, but to a slightly higher degree (Brown, 1974). In addition, individuals do not want to be seen as the person who is not willing to take the same risks as their peers and will act in a manner consistent with alleviating this fear.

This means that in group discussion settings individuals will polarise their positions to fall in line with the rest of the group if they find out that other members show a greater affinity for one side of the discussion than original thought (Myers & Lamm, 1976).

There have been studies that show this effect exists even when there is no face-to-face group discussion, but the sentiments of the group are still conveyed by way of providing the participants with scores of central tendencies from the group results (Baron & Roper, 1976).

Practically, this can also cause an escalating effect to emerge where one individual shares a risky proposition, and the next may suggest one riskier that they believe, but those who were originally more reserved will change their position, and share that new position to try and restore their own self-image. This is what helps shape the overall upwards shift in risky behaviour.

Persuasive Arguments[edit | edit source]

The second theory is that of persuasive argument. It is based on the same principles a social comparison in that people want to be perceived more favourably rather than less so. However, this leads to the practical effect of individuals prioritising voicing their riskier ideas and not their more cautious ones. This produces an overemphasising effect whereby all pro-risk suggestions get repeated and over-represented.

According to this theory every issue that a group can deal with consists of a pool of facts and propositions which can be sorted into two camps, those for the position and those against it. In the group, each member has their own sample of arguments from this pool, which in turn will determine whether they lean more strongly for or against the proposition in question. When the group is discussing the issue, the combined selection of arguments from the group’s personal pools is culminated into a collective knowledge bank. People are more likely to prioritise the arguments that favour their original position on the matter, so for a group that already had similar positions, there is now a large collection of similarly oriented arguments being shared to all members of the group. This results in all groups members being exposed to a number of new reinforcers that further solidify their faith in the initial position, and as such their feeling towards the position are stronger and a polarisation occurs (Burnstein & Vinokur, 1977). This effect can even be seen when a group is exposed to these new facts from the broader knowledge bank without being aware of the original positions of other group members (Burnstein & Vinokur, 1973).

Also, the study by Collins & Guetzkow (1964) suggested that individuals who are more confident tend to also be the ones who are willing to take more risks and as such may have a better chance a persuading other members in the group to agree with riskier positions. This further contributes to the overarching polarisation effect.

Diffusion of Responsibility[edit | edit source]

The theory of diffusion of responsibility dictates that people will be less likely to take responsibility for something if they are in a group setting. This theory can also be applied to risky shift in that people may be more inclined to act in a risky manner if they feel that the responsibility will not lie solely with them. An individual simply knowing that a decision was made jointly may be enough to encourage them to act with less caution.

The study by Wallach, Kogan, & Bem (1964) found that this effect could be characterised differently depending on the specific setting and how appropriate participants would deem it. The existence of a group setting alone produced a risky shift, and conversely the presence of an overarching responsibility for others through individual choice ultimately led to a more conservative shift. However, when both factors were present together, the level of risky shift was higher than either individual condition.

This was linked to diffusion of responsibility, and it was described as operating on 2 levels. Firstly, diffusion operates by increasing the risk-taking of a group through its group decision making. Secondly, it become easier for an individual to act as a delegate of the group in implementing the decision as they will be less likely to feel high levels of guilt for the decision, given it was not theirs’s alone to make. This concept of shared responsibility may also explain how some high-risk decision make it through, for example in corporate environments, because if it was a decision made by one individual and the payoff wasn’t worth the risk, they would be facing the responsibility for that decision alone. In feeling that the burden is shared, there is a greater possibility to undertake higher-risk behaviours.

Familiarisation[edit | edit source]

One theory to explain the risky shift phenomenon is that of familiarisation. The concept itself is based on the idea that if an individual is repeatedly exposed to the same ideas when people are paying attention to one particular course of action, such as a specific decision being discussed by a group, they will become familiar with the idea which in turn leads them to feel more comfortable with it. This comfort then leads the individual to see the action as less risky, ultimately leading to riskier courses of action being taken.

An article by Bateson in 1966 had based a study on the potential mechanisms behind why individuals would advocate for more risky behaviours after they had been involved in group discussions focusing on risky behaviours. The study had compared the level of riskiness an individual was willing to engage in either in a private study condition of risk-based behaviour, a group discussion condition focused on risk-based behaviour, or a control condition involving private study of irrelevant matters. The study found that in both test conditions the overall riskiness of the participant had increased in a consistent manner, however the control condition did not show an increase. This suggested to Bateson that it was in fact the familiarisation the participant had with the risky behaviour that lead them to be less cautious with those matters which meant that they would be more likely to act on them in an increasingly risky way.

In addition, around the same time, Flanders and Thistlethwaite (1967) had also studied this particular motivational theory and found similar results. Their study explained the phenomenon as occurring due to the increased comprehension of the risky behaviour being discussed and in turn this had led to the development of a familiarisation with the matter, causing the individual to act with less caution.

However, other studies have examined the specific effects and constraints of the familiarisation effect on risky shift and have found competing evidence to that previously established. The study by Dion and Miller (1971) had found that when familiarisation was tested in isolation it had no significant effect on risk-taking behaviours, directly contradicting past studies. It also found that group-based discussion of those matter consistently led to an increase in risk-taking and as such needed to be considered as an aspect of the motivation behind this phenomenon. The same concerns were addressed in other studies such as that by Teger, Pruitt, St.Jean, & Haaland (1970).

Overall, the motivation of familiarisation is one that has had a lot of doubt cast over it due to inconsistent result across studies, especially where other theories are more reliable in relation to assessing the effect of risky shift. Specifically, it also fails to take into account the effects of group dynamics as a major contributing factor, which may be its greatest weakness.

Utilisation[edit | edit source]

Risky shift dictates that the level of risk willing to be undertaken by a group will rise to a level above the group’s average, therefore, knowledge of this phenomenon can allow for its exploitation. The effects of risky shift are assumed to be widespread in any group setting, and as such the ways in which it can affect specific individuals, and furthermore, society at large, are varied and complex. Some examples include:


The study by Myers and Kaplan (1976) found that in simulated jury cases individuals were found to cast judgements on both ends of the spectrum dependant on the discussion and expected positions they were presented with. Overall, participants were more lenient in their judgements for the punishment they wished to recommend on cases of innocence. Alternatively, they were also generally deciding on harsher punishments for those who were considered guilty. For the control cases, where no discussion occurred with other participants, these effects were not present.

Politics/ Social Justice

A study by Lewin and Kane (1975) had come following the Nixon Watergate situation and was aimed at seeing the effects of risky shift on scenarios which were less constructed and more rooted in actual events. The study took risk related behaviour tests both before and after the administration of a 10-minute discussion of the events. They found that after the discussion a total of 18 of the 29 subjects had altered their views in a riskier direction.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 1.The two main theories of motivation used to explain risky shift are:

familiarisation and diffusion of responsibility
choice shift and group polarisation
social comparison and persuasive arguments

2 2.Risky Shift:

increases cautious behaviour
is a form of group polarisation
does not affect group decisions

3 3.Risky Shift does not appear in:

jury trials
political party gatherings
individual sports

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The risky shift phenomenon is widespread and impacts all of society. It can have a large effect on individuals without their knowledge, and in turn the polarisation it emphasises can shape communities. While the effect is straightforward, the reasons why it occurs are not so clear cut. As with many issues regarding human cognition, motivation is a complex mechanism with a number of overlapping theories that comprise it, and as such it is difficult to try and apply one theory alone. Risky shift can be seen as a product of social comparison theory and persuasive argument and by devoting the time to understand how it operate, there exists a better chance in the future for its utilisation and control for the greater good.

See also[edit | edit source]

More from the Wiki-book "Motivation and Emotion"

Risk taking and emotion in financial markets (Book chapter, 2019)

More from Wikipedia

Attitude Change

Group Cohesiveness

Group Decision Making

Group Polarisation

Social Comparison Theory

References[edit | edit source]

Baron, R. S., & Roper, G. (1976). Reaffirmation of Social Comparison Views of Choice Shifts: Averaging and Extremity Effects in an Autokinetic Situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 521-530.

Bateson, N. (1966) Familiarization, Group Discussion and Risk Taking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 119-129.

Brown, R. (1965). Social Psychology. New York: Free Press

Brown, R. (1974). Further Comment on the Risky Shift. American Psychologist, 29, 468-470.

Burnstein, E., & Vinokur, A. (1973). Testing Two Classes of Theories About Group-Induced Shifts in Individual Choice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9, 123-137.

Burnstein, E., & Vinokur, A. (1977). Persuasive Argumentation and Social Comparison as Determinants of Attitude Polarization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 315-332.

Collins, B. E., & Guetzkow, H. (1964). A Social Psychology of Group Processes for Decision-Making. New York: Wiley

Dion, K. L., & Miller, N. (1971). An Analysis of the Familiarization Explanation of the Risky-Shift. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(5), 524-533.

Flanders, J. P., & Thistlethwaite, D. L. (1967). Effects of familiarization and group discussion upon risk taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(1), 91-97.

Fromkin, H. (1970). Effects of Experimentally Aroused Feelings of Undistinctiveness Upon Valuation of Scarce and Novel Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16, 521-529.

Gabbay, M., Kelly, Z., Reedy, J., & Gastil, J. (2018). Frame-Induced Group Polarization in Small Discussion Networks. Social Psychology Quarterly, 81(3), 248-271. doi:10.1177/0190272518778784

Lewin, M. A., & Kane, M. (1975). Impeachment of Nixon and the Risky Shift. International Journal of Group Tensions, 5(3), 171-176.

Myers, D. G., & Arenson, S. J. (1972). Enhancement of Dominant Risk Tendencies in Group Discussion. Psychological Reports, 30, 615-62.

Myers, D. G., & Kaplan, M. F. (1976) Group-Induced Polarization in Simulated Juries. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2(1) 63-66.

Myers, D. G., & Lamm, H. (1976). The Group Polarization Phenomenon. Psychological Bulletin, 83, 602-627.

Stoner, J. A. F. (1961). A Comparison of Individual and Group Decisions Involving Risk. Unpublished master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Cited in Marquis, D. G. (1962). Individual Responsibility and Group Decisions Involving Risk. Industrial Management Review, 3, 8-23.

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.

Teger, A. I., Pruitt, D. G., St.Jean, R., & Haaland, G. A. (1970) A Reexamination of the Familiarization Hypothesis in Group Risk Taking. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 6(3), 346-350.

Wallach, M. A., Kogan, N., & Bem, D. J. (1964). Diffusion of Responsibility and Level of Risk Taking in Groups. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 68, 263-274

Wyland, C. L. (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. (R. F. Baumeister, & K. D. Vohs, Eds.) London: SAGE Publications. Retrieved from

External links[edit | edit source]

Risky shift (