Social influences in brainstorming groups

An overview

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008
15 Pages, Grade: 1


table of contents


Brainstorming - from Osborn to Gallupe
Osborn’s brainstorming rules
The study from M. Diehl & Wolfgang Stroebe (1987)
Social Comparison Processes - Festinger (1954)
The research of Paulus, Dsindolet & Camacho
The study from Gallupe et al. (1991)




This project will try to give both a historical view of brainstorming and the standpoint of the present research on this field. Starting with a definition of the concept, the findings of the American advertiser Alex Osborn will be then presented and discussed, as well as the several directions that the brainstorming literature acquired after this initial research.

The main focus of the project will be the Social / Cognitive Influence Model of Performance of Group Brainstorming, proposed by Paulus et al., as well as some of the research conducted by this group of psychologists. However, other researchers will be quoted and their results compared and discussed.

At the end, some information will be given about a relatively recent way of brainstorming - Electronic brainstorming where some studies will be presented and the use of technology in group tasks will be discussed.

The final discussion will critically review the main points focussed throughout the project and deepen some questions about the brainstorming discussion.

Brainstorming - from Osborn to Gallupe

Alex Osborn, an advertising writer of the fifties and sixties, published in 1957 a book called Applied Imagination, which dealt with creative thinking techniques. One of them was brainstorming, that probably became the best known idea generation process, and is still today the subject of many research studies in the areas of Psychology, Education and even Economy.

Almost forty years later Hewstone, Stephenson & Stroebe (1996) define brainstorming as “]a] group technique aimed at stimulating group members to generate as many ideas as possible concerning a specified topic” (Hewstone, Stephenson & Stroebe: 1996). Nevertheless, this simplified and compact definition needs a deeper insight, in order for us to understand better what is involved in brainstorming and why there are contradicting views regarding it.


During his studies about creative thinking, Osborn established four rules to be systematically applied in every brainstorming session. Quoting Paulus et al, “]g]roup members are instructed to generate as many ideas as possible without concern for quality. They are encouraged to say all ideas that come to mind and also to develop new ideas by building on the ideas shared in the group. To make this free exchange of ideas possible, group members are instructed to defer judgement of ideas and not to criticise ideas during the exchange process.” (Paulus et al: 2000: p. 300) The general philosophy supporting these rules is that, by generating a large number of ideas, some of them will also be of quality and can be selected and improved in a later stage of the work.

During the seventies brainstorming was used more or less in the way established by Osborn and there arose no great controversies. However, in 1987 a study was

published that contradicted some of Osborn’s original ideas and changed the course of the brainstorming research.


The starting point of this study were a few other previous studies which suggested that brainstorming groups were not necessarily more effective than the so- called nominal or face-to-face groups, where each individual brainstorms alone. Actually, in some of these studies, it was discovered that brainstorming groups were considerably less productive than other groups of the same sise working individually. These findings had such an influence that even today many researchers are sceptical about the productivity of brainstorming groups. In 1998 in a book about group dynamics, under Kreativitätsaufgabe we can still read that “die kreative Ideenproduktion in kleinen Gruppen deutlich unter der von Einselpersonen liegt” (Ardelt-Gattinger, Lechner & Schlögl: 1998: p. 261)

In their study Diehl & Stroebe suggested three types of mechanisms used to explain why interactive brainstorming groups do not perform as well as nominal groups

- procedural, social psychological and economic. From these three causes given to account for the loss of productivity, the first two are the most important and will be the main target of our analysis.

Focussing on the procedural aspect of group brainstorming, i.e. the interactive process used in a brainstorming session, several conclusions can be drawn from the fact that each individual has to take turns in presenting their ideas, while nominal group members have the whole time entirely to themselves. Quoting Paulus et al, “]t]his process may inhibit the generation of ideas, in various ways. Individuals may forget ideas while waiting for others to state theirs or decide not to state ideas similar to those of the others” (Paulus et al: 1993: p. 575). The problems arising from the fact that group members must share their time in a sequential order have been called production blocking. After a series of different studies focussing on production blocking, Diehl & Stroebe (1991) found that time constraints involved in the interaction process are the main factor in accounting for the productivity gap between nominal and group brainstorming. However, many researchers were not satisfied with this explanation because the procedural blocking interpretation “cannot account for the impact of variables that influence group brainstorming without changing the nature of interaction. For example, variations in the degree of evaluation, accountability, and experimenter presence do not affect the group procedures but do influence performance” (idem). So, production blocking was considered by the brainstorming literature as an important factor in the productivity loss experienced in the groups, but not as its main cause, being suggested that the social psychological mechanisms could have a greater influence.

In their study, Diehl & Stroebe also analysed social psychological factors, which are “mechanisms (…) that derive from the presence of other group members” (Paulus et al: 1995: p. 1071). The most famous of these mechanisms is called Evaluation Apprehension and derives from the implicit evaluation existent in most social contexts. Individuals tend to compare performances when interacting and the instruction given before each brainstorming session that judgement of ideas should be suspended cannot prevent this tendency. The result of this scepticism towards social evaluation is normally inhibition and a reduction of the number of ideas because of the concern for what others might think of them. Evaluation Apprehension has been the theme of many studies and it is considered to play a big role in the loss of productivity of brainstorming groups. However, “it does not appear to account for the productivity gap, because such a gap is similar in both low and high evaluative conditions” (Diehl & Stroebe: 1987: p. 507).

The so-called economic mechanisms are related to the motivational aspect of brainstorming and can happen in two ways: social loafing and free riding. When working in a group, individuals tend to exert less effort on a task than if they were working on the task alone, because the presence of others reduces their accountability. This is known as social loafing and could be one of the causes for the productivity loss in interactive brainstorming groups. However, Bond & Titus (1983), in a review of the social facilitation literature, suggest that the effects of the presence of others are normally quite weak and Williams, Harkins & Latane (1981) found that loafing effects are not likely to occur when group members can be identified with their ideas, as is the case in a brainstorming session (either from the experimenter or from other group members).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Social influences in brainstorming groups
An overview
University of Hamburg  (Institut fuer Allgemeine Erziehungswissensachaft)
Paedagogische Psychologie
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ISBN (Book)
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Joana Duarte (Author), 2008, Social influences in brainstorming groups, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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