Groupthink occurs when the pressure to conform within a group interferes with that group's analysis of a problem and causes poor group decision making. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages that can sometimes be obtained by making a decision as a group—bringing different sources of ideas, knowledge, and experience together to solve a problem. Psychologist Irving Janis coined the phrase groupthink in the 1970s. He defines groupthink as: "a mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures." It can also refer to the tendency of groups to agree with powerful, intimidating bosses.
The concept of groupthink provides a summary explanation of reasons groups sometimes make poor decisions. Indeed, groups are supposed to be better than individuals at making complex decisions, because, through the membership, a variety of differing perspectives are brought to bear. Group members not only serve to bring new ideas into the discussion but also act as error-correcting mechanisms. Groups also provide social support, which is especially critical for new ideas. But when new perspectives are rejected (as in the "not invented here" syndrome), it is hard to correct errors. And if the social support is geared toward supporting the group's "accepted wisdom," the elements that can make groups better decision makers than individuals become inverted, and instead make them worse. Just as groups can work to promote effective thinking/decision making, the same processes which enhance the group's operation can backfire and lead to disastrous results.
HOW GROUPTHINK WORKS
Janis identified seven points on how groupthink works. First, the group's discussions are limited to a few alternative courses of action (often only two), without a survey of the full range of alternatives. Second, the group does not survey the objectives to be fulfilled and the values implicated by the choice. Third, the group fails to reexamine the course of action initially preferred by the majority of members from the standpoint of the non-obvious risks and drawbacks that had not been considered when it was originally evaluated. Fourth, the members neglect courses of action initially evaluated as unsatisfactory—they spend little or no time discussing whether they have overlooked non-obvious gain. Fifth, the members make little or no attempt to obtain information from experts who can supply sound estimates of gains and losses to be expected from alternative courses of action. Sixth, selective bias is shown in the way the group reacts to factual information and relevant judgments from experts. Seventh, the members spend little time deliberating how the chosen policy might be hindered by bureaucratic inertia or sabotaged by political opponents; consequently, they fail to work out contingency plans.
Three general problems seem to be at work: over-estimation of group power and morality, closed-minded-ness, and pressures toward uniformity. Groupthink occurs when a group feels too good about itself. The group feels both invulnerable and optimistic. The group feels morally right. Linked to this attitude of perfection is a correlative closed-mindedness. Warnings are ignored. Messengers of difference are dismissed. Negative, stereotypical views of opponents are created and used. Finally, there is pressure for uniformity. A certain amount of self-censorship occurs. If individuals have questions, they keep them to themselves. This lack of dissent results in what Janis calls an "illusion of unanimity." If any difference does occur, group pressure is applied to bring the dissident into line. Janis also mentions "the emergence of self-appointed mindguards—members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency."
If these precipitating problems support tendencies to groupthink, there are predisposing conditions as well. Janis suggests four conditions that predispose a group to groupthink: cohesiveness, group isolation/insulation, leader intimidation, and an absence of decision-making procedures. As a group "hangs together" and members grow to like each other, there will be greater pressure not to introduce disturbing information and opinion that might tear at that cohesiveness. Maintaining the good feelings that come from such cohesion become part of the group's "hidden agenda."
The insulation of the policy-making group is another factor. Frequently groupthinking groups are removed from interaction with others, perhaps because of their position within the organization. Lack of impartial leadership is a third contributing cause. When powerful leaders want to "get their way" they can overtly and covertly pressure the group into agreement. Finally, the lack of a template or protocol for decision making, or what Janis calls "norms requiring methodological procedures for dealing with decision making tasks," can also contribute to groupthink.
HOW TO AVOID GROUPTHINK
There are several things businesspeople can do to avoid groupthink: follow good meeting procedures, including the development of an agenda; aim for proper and balanced staff work; present competing views; and attend to correlative meeting problems, like exhaustion. A template for discussion might also be useful. One suggestion is to use an "options memo technique" in which information is presented as a problem statement, a list of options, and a preliminary recommendation. The group then looks at the preliminary recommendation with at least four questions in mind: 1) is the logic correct? (in selecting the preliminary recommendation from among the options); 2) is the judgment correct? (the logic may be fine, but the judgment may be poor); 3) are there any problems or errors remaining in the preliminary recommendation?; and 4) can the preliminary recommendation be improved? In order to prevent group isolation, it may be helpful to bring in new participants on a regular basis, use outside experts, and invite the group to meet off-site so that changes in settings and surroundings are stimulants.
To avoid groupthink, it is vital for the group leader to become a statesperson or conductor instead of a partisan virtuoso. Leadership almost always involves getting work done through others. High-quality decisions are not made through intimidation, whether intentional or unintentional. Some bosses have no idea why people do not speak up, while the reason they do not is they are likely to be attacked. Bosses encourage the best performance from groups when they can alert them to the kind of review that is expected. If the leader can be clear, and temperate, there is a greater likelihood that norms of disagreement will develop.
Finally, there is the cohesion process itself. Decision making tears at the fabric of group cohesion, and it is the desire to preserve cohesion that is an underlying dynamic of groupthink. But if decisions lower group cohesion it is not necessary to avoid decisions; an alternative is to rebuild cohesion each time. One way to accomplish this rebuilding is to complete decision making by about 65 percent of the way through the meeting, then move on to brainstorming for the next 20-30 percent of the meeting. People who have differed before have a chance to continue to interact, now around less threatening, future-oriented items. This meeting technique allows for decompression, and for rebonding of the group.
Because of the flaws of individual decision making—selective perception, excessive self-interest, limited knowledge, limited time—most important decisions today are made in groups. And groups can do a spectacular job; but they often do not. Meetings, the place where groups do their decision-making work, have a bad reputation these days, largely because of processes such as groupthink. Groupthink is the result of flawed procedures, poor leadership, insulation, and an unmanaged desire for the maintenance of group cohesion and its good feelings. These factors can be addressed positively, and group decision making improved, while groupthink is kept to a minimum.
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#x00A0; updated by Magee, ECDI
Irving Janis (1972, 1982) originated the term groupthink to describe a set of definitive beliefs and behaviors found in decision-making groups when their motivation to maintain internal consensus overrides their rational appraisal of information. The model was developed from qualitative case studies of the flawed decision processes that preceded U.S. government fiascoes like the failure to protect Pearl Harbor against Japanese invasion in 1941, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba during the Kennedy Administration, and the burglary of the Watergate complex during the Nixon Administration. The attractiveness of the model rests largely on its explicit attention to seven antecedent conditions and eight associated patterns of in-group cognition and action that can influence the quality of solutions to business and organizational problems. The principal antecedent condition of groupthink is extreme in-group cohesiveness. Other antecedent conditions linked to in-group cohesion include insulation of the group from outside information and critics, directive leadership, a lack of group norms prescribing methodical problem-solving procedures, homogeneous attitudes or values among members, high stress due to external competition or threat, and a temporary loss of self-esteem produced by recent failure or the complexities of the task at hand. According to the groupthink model, these contextual antecedents lead to specific psychological symptoms shared by decision-makers that result in a detrimental tendency to seek premature concurrence. The symptoms show up as an illusion shared by group members that they are invulnerable to bad outcomes, an unquestioned belief in the moral superiority of the in-group, an inclination to collectively rationalize support for the group’s decisions, stereotyping of out-group members as weak and wrong, self-censorship through the withholding of dissenting opinions, a perception that other in-group members are unanimous, direct pressure on dissenters to conform, and the emergence of “mindguards” whose role is to protect the group’s preferred position from counterargument. Janis expected this constellation of biased reactions to cause critical flaws in the procedures group members adopt to solve important dilemmas.
The specific errors of group process that are thought to be caused by groupthink include the incomplete review of decision alternatives, inadequate consideration of how proposed actions fit group objectives, failure to examine the negative risks of proceeding with proposed actions, insufficient search for and review of available information, failure to reexamine previously rejected alternatives, and failure to develop backup contingency plans. Researchers generally agree that these procedural shortcomings can reduce decision quality (Baron 2005). However, empirical studies that directly test the effects of Janis’s antecedent conditions on the other components of the groupthink model reveal the risks inherent in developing general propositions from narrative case studies.
Statements made by NASA officials and consulting engineers at Morton Thiokol just prior to the disastrous 1986 decision to launch the Challenger shuttlecraft were content analyzed in one of a handful of quantitative case studies that show some support for a negative association between specific symptoms of poorly functioning groups (e.g., self-censorship and directive leadership) and decision-making (Esser, 1998). However, these studies also fail to verify essential causes of bad decisions that are specific to the groupthink model. Empirical justification for retaining group cohesion as a key variable in groupthink is especially elusive. Controlled studies designed to experimentally test the effects of group cohesion on groupthink symptoms and outcomes show results that are inconsistent and sometimes contrary to the theory’s primary predictions (McCauley 1998). One reason is that while Janis defined group cohesion as a high degree of attraction or esprit de corps between group members, premature concurrence can also be attributed to a fear of rejection by in-group members or a fear of losing status, especially when self-censorship and directive leadership are involved. In sum, critics argue that groupthink theory is based on a selective sample of cases. Retrospective case studies are an inadequate means of establishing necessary conditions and sound explanations for behavior.
Despite the vagaries of interpreting tests of the groupthink model, there is little doubt that research in this area has revealed a number of reasons why groups may fail to achieve optimal decisions. Pressure to conform to a seemingly popular group decision can follow from pluralistic ignorance, which is a false assumption by individuals that other in-group members are unanimous in their beliefs or knowledge. Likewise, false uniqueness is the sense that one is without support for dissenting from what is apparently the group’s position. When group members are able to discuss their preferred decisions, group polarization can foster confidence that the popular group decision is correct even if all relevant information has not been considered. Finally, extreme group positions may indicate ethnocentrism, which reduces consideration of alternative positions, particularly those that would lead to relationships with out-group members.
SEE ALSO Solidarity
Baron, Robert S. 2005. So Right It’s Wrong: Groupthink and the Ubiquitous Nature of Polarized Group Decision Making. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 37, ed. Mark P. Zanna, 219–253. San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
Esser, James K. 1998. Alive and Well after Twenty-Five Years: A Review of Groupthink Research. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 73 (2–3): 116–141.
Janis, Irving L. 1982. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. 2nd rev. ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. Originally published as Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1972).
McCauley, Clark. 1998. Group Dynamics in Janis’s Theory of Groupthink: Backward and Forward. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 73 (2–3): 142–162.
Pluralistic ignorance is a psychological phenomenon in which people think they feel differently from everybody else, even though they are behaving similarly. Consider the following case of pluralistic ignorance: On most college campuses, alcohol use is widespread, and students drink, some to excess, at most social functions. Surveys reveal that most students have misgivings about heavy drinking, particularly when it interferes with schoolwork. Nevertheless, they do not act on these misgivings; instead, they publicly conform to campus norms that prescribe a liberal attitude toward drinking and tolerance for drunkenness. These circumstances give rise to pluralistic ignorance: Students take their peers’ behavior at face value, assuming that everybody else is much more comfortable with heavy drinking than they are.
The study of pluralistic ignorance originated with Floyd Allport, who coined the term in 1928 to describe the situation in which virtually all members of a group privately reject the group’s norms and yet believe that virtually all members of the group privately accept them. In the intervening eighty years, pluralistic ignorance has been linked empirically to a wide variety of collective phenomena, including the failure of bystanders to intervene in emergency situations, groupthink, the spiral of silence, and the perpetuation of unpopular and deleterious social norms and practices. Once a behavior achieves a high degree of uniformity within a group, pluralistic ignorance fuels its perpetuation.
Pluralistic ignorance often originates in widespread conformity to social norms, driven by a desire both to gain peers’ approval (normatively based conformity) and to do the right thing (informationally based conformity). When this conformity produces consensual behavior that belies private misgivings, pluralistic ignorance is frequently the result. People recognize that their own actions are driven by a desire to be in step with their peers, but assume that everybody else’s actions reflect their private convictions. This dynamic has been shown to produce pluralistic ignorance in a wide variety of attitudinal domains, including students’ attitudes toward alcohol use on campus, nurses’ attitudes toward their jobs, racial attitudes during the civil rights movement, and the opinions of board members about the declining performance of their firm.
Pluralistic ignorance also arises when uniform behavior is driven by other social motives. Consider, for example, the plight of two individuals trying to initiate a romantic relationship. Their interest in each other is mingled with fear of being rejected, and as a consequence, neither is willing to make the first move. Yet, even though both are behaving similarly, they interpret this behavior differently: They see their own inaction as driven by fear of rejection and the other’s inaction as driven by lack of interest. In this case, it is not conformity that produces consensual behavior but rather common fears and anxieties. Pluralistic ignorance results from people’s failure to recognize just how common their fears and anxieties are. This dynamic has been shown to produce pluralistic ignorance in a variety of interpersonal settings, including interactions between potential romantic partners, interracial contact situations, college classrooms, and public emergencies.
SEE ALSO Conformity; Genocide; Groupthink; Herd Behavior; Lynchings; Milgram, Stanley; Psychology
Miller, Dale T., and Deborah A. Prentice. 1994. Collective Errors and Errors about the Collective. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 20 (5): 541–550.
O’Gorman, Hubert J. 1986. The Discovery of Pluralistic Ignorance: An Ironic Lesson. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 22 (4): 333–347.
Deborah A. Prentice