Groupthink

Groupthink is a term coined by Irving Janis in 1971 to describe a premature concurrence-seeking tendency that interferes with  collective decision-making processes and leads to poor decisions. It is characterized by deterioration in group member mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgments that result from in-group pressures to seek consensus. It is what happens when the task demands on a decision-making group are overwhelmed by the social demands to reach consensus. When experiencing groupthink, members tend to make simplistic statements about the issues and more positive in-group references than those in nongroupthink cases.

Groupthink theory has become an influential framework for understanding the origins of group decision-making fiascos and has been widely cited in a variety of disciplines including psychology, business, political science, and communication. The appeal of the concept is evidenced by the ease with which it can be applied to numerous group decisions and the potential for groupthink to occur in various work situations.

Groupthink is likely when members

  • are in a highly cohesive group;
  • perceive a stressful situational context such as time pressure;
  • perceive the task to be important, difficult, and involving; and
  • are striving for unanimity rather than evaluating alternative courses of action (i.e., concurrence seeking tendency).

Group cohesion may be a function of mutual attraction, comradeship, enthusiasm, and devotion to a common course; desire to belong to the group; or loyalty to a leader. Other antecedents of groupthink may be structural and procedural faults of the group, including insulation, promotional (or directive) leadership, lack of norms requiring methodological procedures, and homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology.

Groupthink theory identifies specific symptoms of defective decision making and prescribes a number of concrete and useful remedies for avoiding them. The original symptoms of groupthink identified by Janis (1972) are as follows:

  • An illusion of invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.
  • Collective rationalization: Members discredit and explain away warnings contrary to group thinking.
  • An illusion of morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.
  • Excessive stereotyping: The group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group.
  • Direct pressure for conformity on dissidents: Peers pressure members of the group who express arguments against the prevailing group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.
  • Self-censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counterarguments.
  • Illusion of unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group’s decision—silence is considered consent.
  • Reliance on self-appointed mind guards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.

Research suggests that additional symptoms may include the following:

  • Group insulation: Failure to initiate or maintain contact with an opposition group and lack of coordination with third-party mediators.
  • Creation of time pressure: Failure to extend the time period for reaching a decision.
  • Lack of impartial leadership: Less available information is used and few solutions are suggested when leaders are directive.
  • Decision making: Lack of methodical decision-making procedures.

By facilitating the development of shared illusions and related norms, these symptoms are used by groups to maintain esprit de corps during difficult times. The major thrust of groupthink theory is that the presence of a number of the previous symptoms increases the probability that a group will elicit group-think. That is, the more symptoms of groupthink, the more unfavorable the outcomes.

Groupthink may be avoided if the group does the following:

  • Understands groupthink: The group is made aware of the causes and consequences of groupthink.
  • Has an open climate: The leader is neutral when assigning a decision-making task to a group, initially withholding all preferences and expectations. This practice can be especially effective if the leaders consistently encourage an atmosphere of open inquiry with free discussion, nonjudgmental attitudes, and acceptance of divergent thinking. The leader gives high priority to airing objections and doubts, and is accepting of criticism. Groups are divided into two separate deliberative bodies as feasibilities are evaluated.
  • Avoids being too directive: The leader exercises the leadership role by avoiding being too directive. It is important that the leader avoid exerting undue influence on other group members.
  • Has coping mechanisms: Groups should be provided with some means of coping with decision-making stress.
  • Avoids isolation: Outside experts should be included in vital decision making to provide critical reaction to the group’s assumptions. Tentative decisions should be discussed with trusted colleagues from outside the decision-making group. In this way the group avoids isolation with limited data and few perceived choices. The organization should routinely follow the administrative practice of establishing several independent decision-making groups to work on the same critical issue or policy.
  • Assigns members the role of critical evaluator: Each group member should be a critical evaluator with the role of devil’s advocate assigned to several strong members of the group. After reaching a preliminary consensus on a decision, all residual doubts should be expressed and the matter reconsidered. The group should be forced to reexamine its assumptions and rationalizations and consider unpopular alternatives. A sizable amount of time should be allocated specifically to surveying all warning signals from rival groups and organizations.

Groupthink Research Support

Janis (1972) first developed the concept of groupthink through qualitative analyses of defective decision-making cases such as the appeasement of Nazi Germany, the Bay of Pigs, Pearl Harbor, the North Korean invasion, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the Watergate cover-up. He compared the decision-making processes involved in these fiascoes with those cases in which there was more effective decision making, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Marshall Plan. In developing groupthink theory, Janis highlighted the defective search and appraisal process that could be attributed directly to group pressures acting on members and stemming directly from their desire to protect and maintain group cohesion.

Philip Tetlock (1979) conducted a more quantitative test of Janis’s theory by conducting a content analysis of public statements made by key decision makers involved in groupthink and nongroupthink decisions. Results of this analysis indicate that decision makers in groupthink situations had more simplistic perceptions of policy issues and more positive references to the United States and its allies. However, these decision makers did not engage in more out-group stereotyping.

Since its original conception, the groupthink model has been widely investigated in experimental settings, and there are about two dozen empirical studies of groupthink. The studies directly testing the model use one or a combination of three methods: case study, laboratory experiment, and content analysis. Although most studies have examined the antecedents of group-think and defective decision making, researchers have attempted to expand on the model and provide the underlying psychological mechanisms producing groupthink, such as social categorization, compliance and internalization, and group polarizations.

Laboratory studies have mainly focused on the antecedent conditions of groupthink including leadership, group cohesiveness, external threat, and so on. These studies have demonstrated that directive leadership style with more mind guarding and more self-censorship is predictive of groupthink. In addition, there is generally support that lack of decision-making procedures increases groupthink; and external threat, particularly time pressure, appears to promote symptoms of groupthink and defective decision making.

However, contrary to Janis’s predictions, laboratory studies have found little or no support for group cohesion as a predictor of groupthink. However, these studies have been criticized for operationalizing groupthink poorly or inappropriately because members may not have perceived themselves as group members. Moreover, although insolated groups do seem to consider fewer alternatives and make poorer decisions, they do not have an illusion of invulnerability and do not consult with experts less often than do less insulated groups.

Overall, results of experimental studies provide only partial support for the groupthink model, and there are no firm conclusions regarding its antecedents. Researchers have attributed null or contradictory results of the experimental studies of groupthink to

  • testing the model partially by including only a subset of antecedent conditions,
  • failure to fully capture the original meanings of the antecedent conditions,
  • failure to include all symptoms of groupthink and defective decision making, and
  • failure to use a decision-making task on which solution quality ranges from very poor to very good.

In practical terms, research has applied the group-think model to various managerial domains, such as decision making, leadership, and the management of organizational teams. In these domains groupthink has been regarded as a detrimental group process and, as a result, many training programs addressing leadership and team performance have incorporated various strategies to avoid groupthink in the workplace. There has been little empirical work done to demonstrate groupthink’s negative implications in organizations. However, the few studies that have been conducted provide evidence that groupthink hinders the effectiveness of work teams.

References:

  1. Choi, J. N. (1999). The organizational application of group-think and its limitations in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 297-306.
  2. Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  3. McCauley, C. (1989). The nature of social influence in groupthink: Compliance and internalization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57,250-260.
  4. Park, W. W. (2000). A comprehensive empirical investigation of the relationship among variables of the group-think model. Journal of Organization Behavior, 21, 873-887.
  5. Tetlock, P. E. (1979). Identifying victims of groupthink from public statements of decision makers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(8), 1314-1324.
  6. Turner, M. E., Pratkanis, A. R., Probasco, P., & Leve, C. (1992). Threat, cohesion, and group effectiveness: Testing a social identity maintenance perspective on groupthink. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 781-796.
  7. Whyte, G. (1989). Groupthink reconsidered. Academy of Management Review, 14, 40-56.
  8. Whyte, G. (1998). Recasting Janis’s groupthink model: The key role of collective efficacy in decision fiascos. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73, 185-209.

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