What Is Groupthink?

The finding that group decisions tend to be more extreme than the decisions of individuals has attracted huge interest from social scientists, culminating in a new genre of study Irving Janis propounded in 1982, called groupthink.

Groupthink is undoubtedly the most popular theory of how group decision making breaks down and has come to be regarded somewhat uncritically as the prime suspect in a variety of policy-making fiascoes.

By definition, Groupthink is a syndrome of poor group decision-making in which members of a cohesive ingroup strive for unanimity at the expense of a realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.

In attempt to shed more light, social scientists offer varied definitions:

Groupthink is a group-process phenomenon that may lead to faulty decision-making by highly cohesive group members more concerned with reaching consensus than with carefully considering alternative courses of action.

Groupthink is an extreme form of problems associated with the failure to exchange information (or, at least, different views) among group members (Levine & Moreland, 1998).

Interestingly, groupthink offers some insight into how it is that policy-making groups (e.g., councils, committees, juries, the cabinets of ruling governments) composed of like-minded competent, intelligent individuals can reach decisions which are incorrect, unwise or, in the worst case, culminating in disasters ranging from Pearl Harbor Opens in new window and Watergate Opens in new window to the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle mission Opens in new window.

Some of the main characteristics of groupthink decision-makers are that they are more prone to jump to premature conclusions, dismiss contradictory information, bolster preferred options, suppress dissent within the group and display excessive optimism about the outcomes (Tetlock, 1998).

Such decision-making is, moreover, not restricted to foreign-policy issues. Esser and Lindoerfer (1989) argued that the ill-fated decision to launch the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 (in which seven astronauts died, as the shuttle exploded 58 seconds after lift-off) had many of the hallmark of groupthink.

Evidence suggest that some of the engineers who were present at the launch decision meeting had data that told them it might be dangerous to proceed with the launch because of the freezing temperature during the night. The cold conditions might cause the O-ring gaskets on the rocket boosters to leak, with serious consequences. Yet, they decided to withhold some of this information at the meeting, where it was decided to go ahead and launch the shuttle.

In a recent analysis of policy mistakes by British governments, political scientists King and Crewe (2013) give several examples including the failed attempt in 1990 to introduce a ‘poll tax’ or ‘Community Charge’ (a per capita fixed-amount tax imposed on every person of voting age, independent of their income, which led to a series of riots).

King and Crewe (2013) refer to the government’s ‘review team’ for this policy as ‘almost a parody of Irving Janis’s face-to-face groups indulging in groupthink’ (p. 256). They argued that its leader showed no interest in engaging with two nominated outside assessors, who were skeptical of the policy. It minimized contact with outsiders, other than the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whose idea the new tax was!

The poll tax review team failed to appraise realistically alternative options, and did not notice the risks involved (Adapted from: An Introduction to Social Psychology —Miles Hewstone, Wolfgang Stroebe, Klaus Jonas).

In essence, groupthink constitutes an extreme form of normative influence, where the norm to reach and maintain consensus and harmony within the group completely eliminates any information influence that could show how disastrous the group’s intended decision is likely to be.

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Emergence of Groupthink

The concept of groupthink (which alludes to ‘Big Brother’s attempt to control the way people think, in George Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four) has received a great deal of popular attention, because it claims to explain a series of US foreign-policy fiascoes, including the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba Opens in new window (1961) and the escalation of the Vietnam War Opens in new window (1964–1967).

The late Irving Janis (1972, 1982) carried out several post hoc (after the fact) analyses of what he terms historical fiascoes. Janis applied work on group decisions to elite political settings by carrying out a series of case studies, in which he researched government records, political diaries and politicians’ accounts of these turbulent periods (Raven, 1974; Hart, 1990).

Janis found common threads running through these decision failures and named the phenomenon groupthink,

“a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive ingroup, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of actions” (Janis, 1982, p.9).

In summary, Groupthink is a breakdown in the rational decision-making abilities of members of a highly cohesive group who are motivated to reach unanimity and protect the feelings of other group members at the expense of reaching the best decision.

Antecedent Condition (Causes) of Groupthink

According to Janis, groupthink is like a disease that infects healthy groups, rendering them inefficient and unproductive. The symptoms of this disease, such as conformity pressures, illusions, misperceptions, and faulty decision-making strategies, all signal the group’s decline, but they are not the root causes of groupthink.

These proceses undoubtedly contribute to poor judgments, but Janis (1989) distinguished between symptoms of groupthink and its causes: high cohesiveness, insulation of the group from external critics, structural faults of the group or organization, and provocative situational factors (see Figure).

Schematic model of groupthink
Figure showing the Schematic Model of Groupthink

1.   Cohesiveness

Of these factors that contribute to the occurrence of groupthink, Janis emphasized cohesiveness above all others. He argued that groups that lack cohesion can also make terrible decisions—“especially if the members are engaging in internal warfare”—but they cannot experience groupthink (Janis, 1982, p. 176).

In a cohesive group, members refrain from speaking out against decisions, avoid arguing with others, and strive to maintain friendly, cordial relations at all costs. If cohesiveness reaches such a level that internal disagreements disappear, then the group is ripe for groupthink.

Insulation of the group from other groups

Cohesion is certainly a condition that necessitates the rise of groupthink, but the syndrome is more likely to emerge when the group is organized in ways that inhibit the flow of information and promote carelessness in the application of decision-making procedures.

Insulation of the group from other groups, for example, can promote the development of unique, potentially inaccurate perspective on issues and their solution.

The Bay of Pigs planners worked in secret, so very few outsiders ever came into the group to participate in the discussion. The committee was insulated from criticism. Many experts on military questions and Cuban affairs were available and, if contacted, could have warned the group about the limitations of the plan, but the committee closed itself off from these valuable resources.

2.   Provocative situational context

A number of provocative situational factors may push the group in the direction of error rather than accuracy.

As humans tend to be reluctant decision makers in the best of circumstances, they can unravel when they must make important, high-stakes decisions. Such decisions trigger greater tension and anxiety to the degree that group members cope with this provocative decisional stress, in less than logical ways.

Through collective discussion, the group members may rationalize their choice by exaggerating the positive consequences, minimizing the possibility of negative outcomes, concentrating on minor details, and overlooking larger issues.

Because the insecurity of each individual can be minimized if the group quickly chooses a plan of action with little argument or dissension, the group may rush to reach closure by making a decision as quickly as possible (Callaway, Marriott, & Esser, 1985).

Groupthink is favored by group cohesiveness, stress, and the persuasive strength of the leader. It is also more likely to occur when a group is insulated and homogenous and has a leader who promotes a particular point of view.

Janis also suggested that any factors that work to lower member’s self-esteem, such as a history of mistakes or prior lapses of morality, may further increase the possibility of groupthink.

Several measures can be taken to prevent groupthink, including encouraging a critical attitude among members, discussing group solutions with people outside the group, and bringing in outside experts who don’t agree with the group’s solution.

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Critiques of the Concept of Groupthink

Despite its popularity, however, social scientists routinely complain that groupthink is a poorly specified and largely untested theory.

Analysis of case studies, often based on content analysis of available records, does show increased rigidity and more simplistic thinking among decision-makers involved in groupthink decisions, compared to more favorable outcomes (Tetlock, 1979).

Herek, Janis, and Huth (1987) also reported a negative association between the number of symptoms of groupthink and the quality of the decision. But there is little evidence that cohesiveness alone, or in combination with other supposed antecedents, contributes to defective decision-making.

As Telock (1998) also points out, one can quite easily find successful political decisions in cases with evidence of groupthink (e.g., Churchill suppressed dissent in cabinet meetings in 1940–1941 when some group members advocated a negotiated peace with Hitler), but also instances in which vigilant decision-making failed to prevent disastrous outcomes (e.g., President Jimmy Carter’s failed mission to rescue hostages from Iran in 1980, despite his encouragement of open debate).

Laboratory studies are even less supportive, perhaps because it is difficult, if not impossible, to create in the laboratory true analogues of highly-cohesive, insulated groups, working under high pressure to make decisions with massive political consequences (Esser, 1998; Mullen, Anthony, Salas, & Driskell,1994).

There are, also, fundamental weaknesses of the groupthink model. It does not allow precise predictions, it is difficult to operationalize the concept (must all the characteristics of groupthink be present to define it as such?), and it is often only applied after-the-fact.

Haslam (2004) concludes that, in organizational settings, all group decision-making includes some element of so-called groupthink symptoms.

Faced with this lack of of supportive evidence, Aldag and Fuller (1993) proposed a more general, but also some complex, group problem-solving model. It includes many of the features discussed by Janis, but also others. For example, it allows for cohesiveness to play a role, but it is seen as just one aspect of group structure which, along with decision characteristics and decision-making context, determine emergent group characteristics (e.g., perceptions that the ingroup is moral and unanimous in its opinions); these characteristics, in turn, affect decision process characteristics (e.g., how carefully objectives are surveyed, and whether alternatives are generated), leading ultimately to outcomes.

Despite the critiques of the concept of groupthink, it has proven a remarkably attractive notion to not only scholars but also policy analysts. In their wide-ranging book The Blunders of our Governments, King and Crewe (2013) devote a chapter to the topic, concluding, ‘other things being equal, cohesion and mutual loyalty are desirable properties in any human group. Nevertheless, group-think is a barrier to successful decision making more often than not. It renders blundering more probable’ (p. 267).

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