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What Is Groupthink?

By Derek Schaedig, published March 25, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Groupthink refers to the tendency for certain types of groups to reach decisions that are extreme and which tend to be unwise or unrealistic

Groupthink occurs when individuals in cohesive groups fail to consider alternative perspectives because they are motivated to reach a consensus which typically results in making less than desirable decisions.

For example, group members may ignore or discount information that is inconsistent with their chosen decision and express strong disapproval against any group member who might disagree.

Janis (1971, 1982) popularized the term groupthink; however, he did not originate the concept. That is generally accredited to George Orwell as he describes the psychological phenomenon as “crimethink” or “doublethink” in his famous dystopian novel titled 1984 (Orwell, 1949).

Janis described groupthink early on as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action” (1972, p. 9). 

Groupthink typically connotes a negative effect. In fact, Janis described it originally in his book published in 1972 titled Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes as “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures” (Janis, 1972, p. 9).

Causes

  • Lack of diversity in groups: Groups that have members who are very similar to one another can be a cause of groupthink. With a lack of diverse perspectives, the group fails to consider outside perspectives.

    Furthermore, these group embers may engage in more negative attitudes towards outgroup members which can exacerbate groupthink (Cherry, 2020)

  • Lack of impartial leadership: Groups with particularly powerful leaders who fail to seriously consider perspectives other than their own are prone to groupthink as well.

    These leaders can overpower group members’ opinions that oppose their own ideas.

  • Stress: Placing a decision-making group under stress in scenarios such as one where there are moral dilemmas can increase the chances of groupthink occurring.

    These groups may try to reach a consensus irrationally.

  • Time constraints: Related to stress, placing time constraints on a decision being made can increase the amount of anxiety also leading to groupthink.

  • Highly cohesive groups: Groups that are particularly close knit typically display more groupthink symptoms than groups that are not.

  • Lack of outside perspectives: Only considering perspectives of in-group members can lead to groupthink as well.

  • Motivation to maintain group members’ self-esteem: If group members are motivated to maintain each other’s self-esteem, they may not raise their voices against the group consensus.

Signs

In Janis’s first book, he cited eight symptoms of groupthink to look out for in order to avoid the phenomena from occurring (Janis, 1972).

  1. Invulnerability: When groups begin to believe their decisions and actions are untouchable or that the group is invincible, they ignore warnings or signs of danger that run contrary to their consensus.

  2. Rationale: Groups that engage in groupthink rationalize their decisions even in the face of obvious warning signs or negative feedback that they receive.

    This is typically thought to be the case because if the group took into further consideration these pushbacks, the group members’ egos well as the time needed to make the decision may be harmed.

  3. Morality: Groups may also believe that their group is inherently morally correct, and they may therefore ignore potential moral or ethical consequences of their decision.

  4. Stereotypes: People or groups that oppose the group engaging in groupthink may be rendered enemies as well. This results in mislabeling the enemy group as “stupid” or “weak” when they may not be.

  5. Pressure: Groups may directly pressure members of the group who contradict the policy advocated by the group.

    This forces them to not be able to push back against any arguments being made. This can leave groups prone to making irrational decisions.

  6. Self-censorship: Members of groups can sometimes censor themselves too.

    These individuals may hold off on raising an opinion contrary to the group consensus or convince themselves their opposing viewpoint is unimportant for fear of judgment from the group.

  7. Unanimity: Sometimes, the false assumption can be made that if everyone in the group is silent, then everyone must agree with what is being put forth.

  8. Mindguards: This term refers to when members of the group appoint themselves as protectors of the leader or other important group members.

    Mindguards dismiss information that contradicts the popular opinion or about past decisions to maintain group self-esteem.

Negative Impacts

  • Poor decisions: Potentially the largest overall impact groupthink can have on decision-making groups is that they are more prone to making poor decisions.

    The effects of groupthink can be especially harmful in military, medical, and political courses of action (Cherry, 2020).

  • Self-censorship:  Individuals within the group affected by groupthink may not be as effective as possible when helping make decisions because they may hold back their potentially helpful opinions if they run contrary to the group’s popular opinion.

  • Inefficient problem solving: Because groups who experience the effects of groupthink fail to consider alternative perspectives, they can sometimes fail to consider ways to solve problems that deviate from their original plan of action.

    This can lead to inefficiencies in the group’s problem-solving capabilities.

  • Harmful stereotypes can develop: Groups may begin to believe that their group is inherently morally right.

    They therefore consider themselves the “in-group,” and label others as outsiders, or the “out-group,” which can become harmful to those on the outside as irrational thoughts about them begin to develop.

  • Lack of creativity: Because members of these groups may self-censor themselves or have pressure put on them by the group to conform, a lack of creativity may result due to the group not encouraging different ideas than the norm.

  • Blindness to negative outcomes: Since groups affected by groupthink can sometimes believe they are inherently correct, they may be unable to see the potentially negative outcomes of their decisions.

    They therefore will not be able to plan accordingly if a negative outcome occurred.

  • Lack of preparation to manage negative outcomes: Because these groups can be overconfident in their decisions, they are more likely to be ill-prepared if their plan does not succeed.

  • Inability to see other solutions: Groupthink can lead to the group failing to consider other opinions or ideas. This leads to the group viewing only the group consensus as the correct solution.

  • Obedience to authority without question: Members of the group are more likely to follow their leaders blindly, never raising their opinion against whether the actions the group agrees on are moral or the correct course of action.

Can Groupthink Ever be a Good Thing?

Groupthink is generally considered a negative phenomenon. Groups generally can benefit from hearing a diverse set of perspectives and information and failing to do so can result in suboptimal decisions being made.

However, it is true that groups who engage in groupthink can make decisions quickly (although they may not be the best decision possible).

Also, anxiety can be reduced amongst the group because the group believes their decisions cannot be flawed. Groups who suffer from groupthink view themselves as untouchable (Janis, 1972). 

Furthermore, groups rationalize the decision they made, whether it was the best option or not, and therefore convince themselves that the risks they are assuming are not as great as they truly are.

Lastly, the group may also believe that they are inherently morally right which helps the members of the group that they cease to feel shame or guilt.

Overall though, groups should take precautions to avoid groupthink as much as possible.

Groupthink in Real-Life Scenarios

The social and political consequences of groupthink may be far-reaching, and history has many examples of major blunders that have been the result of decisions reached in this way.

Many case scenarios have been analyzed such as the Invasion of Iraq (Badie, 2010; Psychology Today Editors, 2021), the attempt to rescue the American prisoners the Vietnam war in the Son Tay raid (Amidon, 2005), and fraudulent behavior at WorldCom (Scharff, 2005) among many other flawed decisions cited for failing due to groupthink.

However, the original real-life scenarios of groupthink discussed by Janis were the escalation of the Vietnam war, the Bay of Bigs Scandal, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The Vietnam War

Elected United States (U.S.) government officials during Vietnam showed signs of invulnerability (Janis, 1972).

The U.S. suffered multiples failures and setbacks, but they continued with their war efforts ignoring the danger and warning signs because they believed they would win no matter what.

Furthermore, the U.S. leaders rationalized their escalated bombing campaigns ignoring the negative feedback that they continuously received.

The U.S. also viewed their decisions as inherently morally right. President Johnson considered the same four factors every Tuesday: the military advantage of the U.S., the risk to American aircraft and pilots, the danger of forcing other countries into the fighting, and danger of heavy civilian causalities. By engaging in this ritualization, they failed to effectively consider the morality of their decisions.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s domino theory was an example of stereotyping as well. By viewing the enemy and its surrounding countries as too incompetent to make their own correct decisions, the U.S. administration made decisions that escalated the war.

Reportedly, Johnson once pressured former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers to stop pushing back against the U.S. bombing campaign. Once, when Moyers entered a meeting, Johnson said of Moyers, “Well, here comes Mr. Stop-the-bombings.”

Bay of Pigs

President John F. Kennedy’s administration suffered from the illusion of invulnerability as well. Despite the plans to invade the Bay of Pigs leaking out, Kennedy’s administration proceeded with the plans ignoring the negative warning signs (Janis, 1972).

Historian Arthur J. Schlesinger expressed his strong objections against the war to both President Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk individually, but when it came to the group discussions on the decision to invade or not, Schlesinger stayed quiet.

He fell prey to believing that the ingroup was inherently moral, so Janis argues and kept his qualms quiet.

Another symptom of groupthink that Kennedy and his group experienced was stereotyping (Janis, 1972). Kennedy and his team made three assumptions about the capabilities of Fidel Castro’s administration that proved to be incorrect.

Kennedy’s administration assumed that Castro’s forces were so weak that a small group of U.S. troops could establish a beachhead at the Bay of Pigs. Secondly, the U.S. administration thought that just a fleet of B-26s could knock out Castro’s entire air force. The third assumption was that Castro was not smart enough to stop any internal uprisings.

Kennedy and his team were wrong in all three assumptions because they negatively stereotyped the enemy and made faulty assumptions.

Many members of the group self-censored as well. It seemed as if there was a unanimous decision within the ingroup to continue with the Bay of Pigs invasion, but Rusk failed to voice his contrary opinion even when three government officials outside of the group expressed their concerns.

Pearl Harbor

Despite warning signs, the U.S. government failed to prepare for the attack on Pearl Harbor because they were subject to the illusion of invulnerability (Janis, 1972). They believed they were invincible against any attacks from the Japanese.

The U.S. leaders also rationalized that the Japanese would never dare to attack the U.S. because that would be an act of war, and the U.S. believed they would handedly win and that their opponent viewed this the same.

This stereotype and failure to view the situation from the enemy’s point of view led to the poor decision to not adequately prepare for the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Opposition to the Theory

Despite a lot of support for the theory over the years, it has received some pushback as well. Sally Fuller and Ramon Aldag argue that being in a cohesive group has been proven to be effective (Aldag & Fuller, 1993; Fuller S.R. & Aldag R.J., 1998).

They also argue that Janis’s theory is not empirically supported and can be inconsistent.  Robert Baron reflects on the many years of research conducted on groupthink and concludes that the body of evidence has largely failed to support the theory (Baron, 2005).

There has been a large body of experimental research conducted on groupthink especially in the years directly following the introduction of the theory. Notably, one study found mixed support for the theory (Flowers, 1977).

Aligning with the groupthink theory, the groups in the study with directive leaders came up with fewer solutions, shared less information, and utilized fewer facts about the case before making a decision.

On the other hand, the more surprising finding was that the more cohesive groups did not perform worse than the less cohesive ones.

Opposing the group cohesion aspect of the groupthink theory as well, John Courtright found that group cohesion had no effect on a number of factors including creativity, feasibility, significance, competence, and number of possible solutions (Courtright, 1978).

Another set of researchers found similar results when it comes to group cohesion (Fodor & Smith, 1982).

Furthermore, both Callaway and Esser reported that both group cohesion and whether or not groups were told to consider all of the possible alternatives or given no instruction had no effect on task performance (Callaway & Esser, 1984).

However, despite the opposition, many researchers have advocated for the theory in their work as well and groupthink is widely cited today (Hensley & Griffin, 1986; Tetlock, 1979). Also, many scholars have adjusted the theory to address the opposition’s findings including the ubiquity model (Baron, 2005), the general group problem-solving model (GGPS) (Aldag & Fuller, 1993), and the sociocognitive theory (Tsoukalas, 2007) just to name a few.

How to Avoid Groupthink

To avoid groupthink, leaders and group members alike can take a variety of steps to help prevent the phenomenon from occurring. Some potential solutions are below.

  • Leaders or impactful group members should create a safe space for discussion. They should be open to opposition to the group consensus, accept criticism, and encourage new ideas regardless of a person’s status within the organization (Janis, 1972, 1982).

  • Key members of the group and leaders should hold back their opinions initially to reduce their influence over the group consensus.

  • Outside groups could be set up to work on the same problem to compare potential solutions.

  • If setting up an entire outside group is not feasible, the ingroup should discuss their ideas with experts outside of the group.

  • Another way to reduce groupthink is by having a “devil’s advocate” or someone who raises ideas contrary to the ones presented despite their own opinion to help produce debates, create new ideas, or help determine the strength of an existing idea.

  • Considering the opposing groups' points of view is key as well.

  • Groups can be split up into smaller subgroups and asked to create their own possible solutions. These groups can then be reconvened to discuss the various options collectively.

  • After the group has reached a preliminary decision, the group could hold another meeting which gives group members one more chance to raise opposition to the consensus.

  • When possible, allow as much time as possible to make a decision (Cherry, 2020)

  • Educating groups about the groupthink phenomenon can be helpful as well.

  • Lastly, it’s important to have a diverse set of group members in order to have different perspectives which can help reach a more balanced, optimal conclusion (Psychology Today Editors, 2021).

 

About the Author

Derek Schaedig is a sophomore at Harvard College majoring in psychology. He’s also a goalie for the men’s ice hockey team, and is interested in abnormal psychology as well as creative writing.

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How to reference this article:

Schaedig, D. (2022, March 25). What is Groupthink. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/groupthink.html

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