Groupthink is a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 to describe one process by which a group can make bad or irrational decisions. In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. This results in a situation in which the group ultimately agrees on an action which each member might normally consider to be unwise (the risky shift).
Janis' original definition of the term was "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." The word groupthink was intended to be reminiscent of George Orwell's coinages (such as doublethink and duckspeak) from the fictional language Newspeak, which he portrayed in his ideological novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Groupthink tends to occur on committees and in large organizations. Janis originally studied the Pearl Harbor bombing, the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Others have cited groupthink as a contributing factor in the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster as well as the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the bankruptcy of Enron, and more recently, the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. In the Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq they write:
"The Intelligence Community (IC) suffered from a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. This "group think" dynamic led Intelligence Community analysts, collectors, and managers, to both interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program as well as ignore or minimize evidence that Iraq did not have active and expanding weapons of mass destruction programs. This presumption was so strong that formalized IC mechanisms established to challenge assumptions and group think were not utilized." I. Introduction B. Weapons of Mass Destruction Capablities 3. Overall Conclusions Weapons of Mass Destruction - Conclusion 3 
Symptoms of groupthink
Janis cited a number of antecedent conditions that would be likely to encourage groupthink. These include:
- Insulation of the group
- High group cohesiveness
- Directive leadership
- Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures
- Homogeneity of members' social background and ideology
- High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s)
Janis listed eight symptoms that he said were indicative of groupthink:
- Illusion of invulnerability
- Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group
- Collective rationalization of group's decisions
- Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents
- Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms
- Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect)
- Direct pressure on dissenters to conform
- Self-appointed "mindguards" protect the group from negative information
Finally, the seven symptoms of decision affected by groupthink are:
- Incomplete survey of alternatives
- Incomplete survey of objectives
- Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
- Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives
- Poor information search
Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)
- Failure to work out contingency plans
One mechanism which management consultants recommend to avoid groupthink is to place responsibility and authority for a decision in the hands of a single person who can turn to others for advice. Others advise that a pre-selected individual take the role of disagreeing with any suggestion presented, thereby making other individuals more likely to present their own ideas and point out flaws in others' — and reducing the stigma associated with being the first to take negative stances (see Devil's Advocate). Anonymous feedback via suggestion box or online chat has been found to be a useful remedy for groupthink — negative or dissenting views of proposals can be raised without any individual being identifiable by others as having lodged a critique. Thus the social capital of the group is preserved, as all members have plausible deniability that they raised a dissenting point. Institutional mechanisms such as an inspector general system can also play a role in preventing groupthink as all participants have the option of appealing to an individual outside the decision-making group who has the authority to stop non-constructive or harmful trends.
An alternative to groupthink is a formal consensus decision-making process, which works best in a group whose aims are cooperative rather than competitive, where trust is able to build up, and where participants are willing to learn and apply facilitation skills.
- Janis, I. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395140447
- Janis, I. & Mann, L. (1977). Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice and Commitment. New York: The Free Press.
- Schwartz, John & Wald, Matthew L. Smart People Working Collectively can be Dumber Than the Sum of their Brains: "Groupthink" Is 30 Years Old, and Still Going Strong. New York Times March 9, 2003. Full Reprint here.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04