The Basic Idea
Imagine you’re part of a team managing the launch of a new space shuttle. You work on the project for years and bond with your team, heavily publicizing the projected launch. When engineers are brought to examine the shuttle only a few months before the planned take-off date, they point out some faulty parts. Hoping to avoid any negative press, your team decides to push ahead with the launch - after all, you know best and if everyone in the group agrees, then it must be the correct decision. This is exactly what happened in the 1986 NASA Challenger explosion, a famous example of groupthink.1
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which people strive to maintain cohesion and reach consensus within a group.2 This can mean that consensus is achieved without critical thinking or an evaluation of the possible consequences or alternatives. Groupthink tends to happen when there’s a strong and persuasive leader, a high level of group cohesion, and external pressure to make the “right” decision. People may set aside their personal beliefs and adopt the majority opinion, either voluntarily or as a result of group pressure. Ultimately, the desire to avoid conflict often stifles individuality and results in conformity.
Theory, meet practice
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Conformity: Matching one’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms.
Consensus: General agreement among members of a group.
Groupthink: The mode of thinking that people engage in when pursuing consensus, that tends to override realistic appraisal of alternatives and consequences.
Group cohesion: Characterizes a group whose members interact with one another well and become united in their ideals and beliefs.
In his novel 1984, George Orwell coined the term “doublethink”: simultaneously holding two opinions that contradict, knowing that they clash yet believing both of them.3 In response to 1984, William H. Whyte Jr. coined the term “groupthink” and popularized it in a 1952 Fortune magazine article. At the time, groupthink was defined as rationalized conformity, an “open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.”4
Beyond Whyte Jr.’s development of the term, psychologist Irving Janis pioneered the initial research that explored groupthink theory. Janis set out to study the effect of extreme stress on group cohesion and the ways people make decisions when faced with external threats.5 He studied a number of political controversies such as the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion and President Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War, and concluded that groupthink prevented contradictory views from being expressed in each situation. Publishing his book Victims of Groupthink in 1972, Janis’ research gained mass attention from those in social psychology, organizational management, and the media.
Aside from the potential causes of groupthink, Janis also theorized groupthink’s eight symptoms.2 The eight symptoms indicative of groupthink include:
- Illusions of invulnerability: believing that the group is able to overcome any and all obstacles, encouraging excessive optimism and risk-taking;
- Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions, by ignoring or discounting such negative feedback as insignificant;
- Unquestioned belief in the group’s morality, allowing members to ignore the consequences of their actions;
- Stereotyping others who oppose the group as weak, biased, evil, incompetent, etc.;
- Direct pressure to conform if members share differing opinions;
- Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the group consensus;
- Illusions of unanimity: silence is perceived as agreement; and,
- Mindguards: self-appointed members who “protect” the group from contradictory information.
Wiliam H. Whyte Jr.
Born in 1917, Whyte joined the Marines and became an intelligence officer before writing for business magazine Fortune.6 Whyte played a leading role at the magazine. His writing explored connections between society and corporations, resulting in his 1952 article “Groupthink.” Later that year, Whyte published a book entitled Is Anybody Listening?, accusing large corporations of selling the “American way of life” through conformity and groupthink. Despite Whyte’s work, he is rarely cited as the pioneer of groupthink, since he did not develop any theories and his work was limited to the business world.
Irving L. Janis
A research professor at Yale University and adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkley Janis is most famous for his groupthink theory, which describes the systematic decision-making errors made by groups.7 Beyond group dynamics, Janis studied decision-making in areas such as smoking and dieting, responding to threats, and conditions that give rise to irrational complacency, hopelessness, and panic. In 2002, a Review of General Psychology survey ranked Janis as the 79th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
Although it is common for a group to strengthen one another’s views, the consequences of groupthink are dangerous and vast. They include limiting discussions to only a few alternatives, making little or no attempts to obtain disconfirming evidence, actively seeking out confirming facts, and failing to consider potential obstacles, thus lacking a contingency plan.2 Acknowledging its dangerous nature, Irving Janis came up with the following suggestions to prevent groupthink:
- Each member should be a “critical evaluator,” assigned to object and voice concerns;
- Leaders shouldn’t express their own opinions when assigning tasks;
- Leaders should remove themselves from group meetings to avoid influencing the outcome;
- Organizations should have several independent groups work on the same problem;
- Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted members outside of the group;
- The group should invite outside experts into meetings; and,
- At least one member should play “devil’s advocate” and this person should switch each meeting.
Since Janis’ Victims of Groupthink, the concept has been further explored in research and real-world case studies. Originally a construct of social psychology, groupthink has had an extensive reach, influencing research related to political science, organizational theory, communication studies, management,5 and even cult behavior. Regarding real-world applications, groupthink has been applied to politics, military operations, the corporate world, and even sports. Well-known publications such as Forbes and the New York Times have published articles on groupthink, emphasizing its importance for workplace diversity, independent thinking, and its impact on left-wing politics. There’s no doubt that groupthink has garnered the attention of many fields, and been used to evaluate a wide range of contemporary situations.
As with many theoretical developments, research on groupthink after Janis’ publication included direct tests, extensions, and reformations of the model.5 Testing groupthink in laboratory settings is difficult since removing groups from real social situations could ultimately change the variables either conducive or inhibitive to groupthink.9,10 Due to its subjective nature, researchers rarely measure groupthink as a whole. Rather, they tend to measure specific factors, mostly those that predict groupthink. For measurement purposes, groupthink has often been operationally defined as the number of ideas or solutions generated within a group. Generally, group homogeneity and isolation have been supported as predictors of groupthink.
Empirical evidence for the groupthink hypothesis has been varied.5 The main conclusions to be drawn based on the available research are that: (1) studies rarely document the whole concept of groupthink; and (2) few studies have documented the actual results of groupthink, which are the low quality, defective decisions that negatively impact performance. As a result, many evaluations have been made regarding the theory’s viability, ranging from outright rejection to reconceptualization of the key causes of groupthink. For example, Aldag and Fuller argue that groupthink is no longer a useful concept, due to limited evidence for the theory as a whole.11 Rather, they propose the general group problem-solving (GGPS) model, which integrates new findings from the existing literature on groupthink and alters certain aspects. The main difference is that GGPS is more value neutral and political, with group problems mostly resulting from incomplete identification of project objectives and alternatives.
From a less negative perspective, other scholars have reconceptualized certain aspects of groupthink, as opposed to completely rejecting it. Whyte himself uses the concept of collective efficacy (the group’s shared belief in its capability to complete a task) to explain groupthink.12 Specifically, the higher the group’s collective efficacy, the more likely it is to favor risks and be less attentive to alternatives choices or potential consequences. Similarly, Kramer suggests that context-specific motivations, like maintaining power, may produce groupthink in government groups.13 Further, McCauley provides a counter explanation for poor decision-making in group settings, arguing that it has less to do with seeking consensus, and more to do with a desire to preserve friendly relations with attractive group members.14 In other words, while groups may want to reach consensus, groupthink is most likely when we seek cohesion and affiliation with other members.15
More recently, Robert Baron proposed an alternative, ubiquity model of groupthink in 2005.16 Baron believes that Janis was correct about the symptoms of groupthink and their relationship to outcomes, such as polarizing attitudes, poor quality of decisions, and the suppression of contradictory ideas. However, Baron proposes that Janis was wrong about the fact that group cohesion only causes groupthink when followed by secondary characteristics, such as protection from outside influences, meaningful threats, and a lack of group norms favoring methodological search procedures. Rather, the ubiquity model suggests three revised factors that may alone predict groupthink: (1) social identification and affiliation among group members; (2) salient group norms regarding philosophies and attitudes for approaching the task; and (3) individual group members having low confidence in their abilities to complete the necessary tasks.
Taken together, it’s evident that there have been many varying responses to Janis’ groupthink theory, and mixed approaches by scholars. Despite mixed responses, Janis’ work has paved the way for contemporary research on group dynamics and organizational management.
In the corporate world
Swiss companies have long prided themselves on their good governance practices.17 However, the collapse of a number of Swiss companies since the 2000s piqued the interest of scholars. One of the best known instances of this phenomenon is Swissair declaring bankruptcy and protection from creditors in October 2002. Previously one of the world’s ten largest airlines, Swissair was thought to be so financially stable that it was commonly referred to as the “Flying Bank.” The case of Swissair’s bankruptcy demonstrates the impact of groupthink on poor management decisions. Specifically, the relevant symptoms of groupthink were beliefs that Swissair was invulnerable, mindguarding, and beliefs in the group’s morality, or superiority.
Major changes were made to European air travel since the 1980s.17 Airlines struggled to establish “hubs” where lots of passengers could be realized by linking intercontinental and regional feeder flights. In order to do this, intercontinental alliances were forged and European airports like London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle were substantially developed. In Switzerland, Zurich airport was planned to become one of the ten largest European airports, and the expansion of Swissair to become Europe’s fourth largest airline was critical to this plan.
Due to Swissair’s reputation, the company felt a sense of superiority regarding expansion plans. Swissair pulled out of a potentially lucrative alliance with other well-known airlines that could have helped its expansion, because of hesitations over sharing control.17 This meant that Swissair no longer had the option to hear the opinions of other successful groups in their industry, a form of mindguarding that allowed for groupthink. Additionally, the CEO of Swissair decided to resize the executive board, eliminating experts in the airline industry and only having members that were politicians and finance professionals. On top of this cut in expertise on the executive board, outside experts on the European and Swiss airline industries were also not consulted. As identified by Janis, external expertise is necessary to eliminate groupthink in group decisions. The cut of board members resulted in the remaining members lacking expertise in the field, while being homogenous in background, norms, and values.
Swissair’s financial crisis had been building up since 2000, when it recorded a financial loss for the first time in its 70-year history, at an amount that consumed almost all of its capital reserves.17 Passenger numbers remained well behind expectations and the beginning economic recession meant that Swissair was unable to continue financing its expansion plans, make up for its existing debt, pay for fuel or even pay its airport taxes. Ultimately, the CEO felt that he and his board members were more than capable of making the necessary company decisions, and the smaller size of the board made the group more vulnerable to groupthink and conformity.
In politics and the military
Groupthink is commonly applied to historical political events, and can be used to evaluate the War on Terror.18 The War on Terror was a military campaign launched by the United States government after the September 11 attacks, led by President George W. Bush. Ultimately, President Bush was authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those whom he felt contributed in any way to the attacks, in order to prevent future acts of international terrorism against the United States. One country involved in the War was Iraq, then led by Saddam Hussein. Described as a shift from cautious restraint to accelerated urgency, the United States’ actions toward Iraq have been considered largely to be the results of groupthink.
Specifically, five symptoms of groupthink have been identified.18 Interpreting silence as agreement, members of President Bush’s core group didn’t challenge his premise of broad military retaliation, resulting in an illusion of conformity. Additionally, any members who questioned the policy specific to Iraq were pressured into agreeing, resulting in an internalization of the policy. Mindguards were also used to drive conformity, such as President Bush himself asking those who were hesitant to “put on [their] war uniform,” and ensuring everyone involved in the campaign was not exposed to contradictory messages. In the case that there was still hesitancy, self-censorship occurred in response to conformity pressures and rationalizations of the War. As the plan specific to Iraq in the War of Terror developed, members who originally held contradictory opinions may have genuinely shifted ideologies as a result of groupthink. Thus, instead of viewing Iraq as an isolated threat that required a modest regime change policy - as had been done prior to 9/11 - the core group in governance at the time shifted its focus to support the militarized and extreme War on Terror.
Related TDL Resources
Clearly, groupthink results from the pressures of group work and a desire to make effective decisions together. How can we avoid groupthink, but still ensure we’re making effective group decisions? Consider United States Military Academy professor Yasmine Kalkstein’s advice on how your group can be effective without giving conformity a seat at the table.
The planning fallacy, our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task, is another cognitive bias that groups fall prey to. Take a look at this article to explore how groupthink and the planning fallacy couple together to affect group work, and how you can protect your project from both
- Janis, I. L. (1991). Groupthink. In E. Griffin (Ed.) A First Look at Communication Theory (pp. 235 - 246). New York: McGraw Hill.
- Janis, I. L. (1971). Groupthink. Psychology Today, 5(6), 43-46.
- Safire, W. (2004, August 8). The way we live now: 8-8-04: On language; Groupthink. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/08/magazine/the-way-we-live-now-8-8-04-on-language-groupthink.html
- Whyte, W. H. Jr. (2013, July 22). Groupthink, (Fortune 1952). Fortune Magazine. https://fortune.com/2012/07/22/groupthink-fortune-1952/
- Turner, M. E., & Pratkanis, A. R. (1998). Twenty-five years of groupthink theory and research: Lessons from the evaluation of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2-3), 105-115.
- Pol, O. (2020). William H. Whyte Jr.: How the creator of “groupthink” was forgotten, and why it matters.
- Nemeth, C., & Tetlock, P. (1991). Irving L. Janis, Psychology: Berkeley. University of California: In Memoriam. http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb4t1nb2bd&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=div00032&toc.depth=1&toc.id=/
- Wexler, M. N. (1995). Expanding the groupthink explanation to the study of contemporary cultures. Cultic Studies Journal, 12(1), 49-71.
- Flowers, M. L. (1977). A laboratory test of some implications of Janis’s groupthink hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(12), 888-896.
- Park, W. W. (1990). A review of research on groupthink. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3(4), 229-245.
- Aldag, R. J., & Fuller, S. R. (1993). Beyond fiasco: A reappraisal of the groupthink phenomenon and a new model of group decision processes. Psychological Bulletin, 113(3), 533-552.
- Whyte, G. (1998). Recasting Janis's groupthink model: The key role of collective efficacy in decision fiascoes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2-3), 185–209.
- Kramer, R. M. (1998). Revisiting the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam decisions 25 years later: How well has the groupthink hypothesis stood the test of time? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2-3), 236–71.
- McCauley, C. (1989). The nature of social influence in groupthink: Compliance and internalization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(2), 250.
- McCauley, C. (1998). Group dynamics in Janis’s theory of groupthink: Backward and Forward. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2-3), 142-162.
- Baron, R. S. (2005). So right it's wrong: Groupthink and the ubiquitous nature of polarized group decision making.
- Hermann, A., & Rammal, H. G. (2010). The grounding of the “flying bank”. Management Decision, 48(7), 1048-1062.
- Badie, D. (2010). Groupthink, Iraq, and the War on Terror: Explaining US policy shift toward Iraq. Foreign Policy Analysis, 6(4), 277-296.