Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people, in which the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking. As a social science model, groupthink has an extensive reach and influences literature in the fields of communication studies, political science, social psychology, management, and organizational theory.
Conditions of Groupthink
The majority of the initial research on groupthink was performed by Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University. Since Janis’s work, other studies have attempted to reformulate his groupthink model. Janis prescribed three antecedent conditions to groupthink:
- High group cohesiveness
- Structural faults (such as insulation of the group, lack of impartial leadership, lack of norms requiring methodological procedures, and homogeneity in the social backgrounds and ideology of its members)
- Situational context (such as highly stressful external threats, recent failures, excessive difficulties on the decision-making task, and moral dilemmas).
it is possible for a groupthink situation to contain all three of these factors, all three are not always present. Janis considered a high degree of cohesiveness to be the most important antecedent to producing groupthink and always present when groupthink was occurring; however, he believed high cohesiveness would not always produce groupthink. A very cohesive group abides to all group norms; whether groupthink arises is dependent on what the group norms are. If the group encourages individual dissent and alternative strategies to problem solving, it is likely that groupthink will be avoided even in a highly cohesive group. This means that high cohesion will lead to groupthink only if one or both of the other antecedents is present, with situational context being slightly more likely than structural faults to produce groupthink.
Consequences of Groupthink
Groupthink decisions are often defective, and result from the following:
- Incomplete survey of alternatives
- Incomplete survey of objectives
- Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
- Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
- Poor information search
- Selection bias in collecting information
- Failure to work out contingency plans
Some experts believe that groupthink also has a strong hold on political decisions and military operations, which may result in enormous expenditures of human and material resources. These scholars, including Janis and Raven, attribute political and military fiascos, such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal, to the effect of groupthink.
More recently, Dina Badie argued that the invasion of Iraq by the United States was driven by groupthink. According to Badie, groupthink was largely responsible for the shift in the U.S. administration’s view on Saddam Hussein that eventually led to military action in Iraq. After 9/11, “stress, promotional leadership, and intergroup conflict” were all factors that gave way to the occurrence of groupthink. Political case studies of groupthink serve to illustrate the impact that the occurrence of groupthink can have in today’s political scene. Groupthink was also found to have occurred in the Chernobyl disaster (Reason, 1987), WMD programs (U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, 2004), and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle (Esser & Lindoerfer, 1989). Other factors that played into these incidents were overconfidence, conformity, self-justification, and group polarization.
Ways of Preventing Groupthink
- Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator.” This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
- Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
- The organization should set up several independent groups, all working on the same problem.
- All effective alternatives should be examined.
- Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
- The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
- At least one group member should be assigned the role of devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.
- Build a Culture, Not a Cult (raybeerhorst.com)
- Decision Making, Groupthink and Scientific Debate (remdios.typepad.com)
- Sense of belonging is twisted by hazing (heraldnet.com)