Have you ever agreed with your friends on something just to avoid feeling left out? Or have seen someone make a big mistake in the name of maintaining peace in the group? Then you have experienced or witnessed a phenomenon known as ‘groupthink.’ We explain the same, along with some famous groupthink examples from across the board.
For the First Time
In 1952, regarding an article in the Fortune Magazine, William H. Whyte first coined the term “Groupthink.”
We have all at some point or the other, faced a circumstance where we have had to suppress our true ideals, beliefs, and opinions to avoid arguments, frustrations, resentment, and feeling out-of-place. This often happens when we are with family debating beliefs, with peers during discussions, and at the workplace, while brainstorming. But these are not the only isolated situations where you will find the occurrence of such an incident. So what is this type of behavior called?
This phenomenon is a psychological occurrence known as “Groupthink.” This type of behavior was first studied by a social psychologist from Yale University named Irving Janis, which he addressed in his 1972 book Victims of Groupthink. The idea for this research was triggered when he first started research on the American Soldier Project, where he studied the effects of stress on group cohesiveness. This led him to further question why, despite the presence of many educated and informed minds in a group, that faulty decisions were made as a whole. He studied many political events during this course, which he published in his revised book “Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes” in 1982. We will look into that later. But first let us try to understand the meaning of groupthink.
Definition and Meaning of Groupthink
As Given by Janis
According to Janis, “groupthink” was 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.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Groupthink is a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.
So what does this mean? Through all the complicated jargon, what both the dictionary and Janis are trying to say is that in a group that has a lot of uniformity or cohesion amongst them, they tend to make unanimous decisions, without properly evaluating all possible options or by suppressing their true opinions, in order to avoid conflict and to avoid being viewed as an outcast of the group. As a result of such action, they make wrong decisions that could have dire consequences.
So let us try to understand why this occurs.
Causes of Groupthink
Janis provided a guideline that underlined the many causes of such behavior amongst groups. Let us look at those.
High Group Cohesiveness
This occurred when people allotted more value to group unity that individual expression and opinions.
Insulation of the Group
This is where due to the cohesiveness, they were guarded from outside opinions or views.
Lack of Impartial Leadership
Often, the team leaders try to thrust their ideas, views, and opinions onto their teammate, and the latter cannot argue due to the fear of being isolated.
Lack of Norms Requiring Methodological Procedure
Since such decision-making is highly opinion-based, there is no proper procedure used to test the validity of such decisions in the real world.
Homogeneity of Members’ Social Backgrounds and Ideology
Many a time, teams with high cohesion tend to come from similar social backgrounds, which automatically leads them to share the same views and ideals on a certain subject matter, leaving no room for varied opinions.
High Stressful External Threats
The fear of being rejected, ostracized, being removed from the group, and being stereotyped causes stress in the members, leading to conformity.
Sometimes, an individual may have experienced a recent failure where their idea or reasoning didn’t seem to work out. In lieu of such fiasco, they tend to doubt their own views and go where the crowd moves.
Excessive Difficulties on the Decision-Making Task
In many cases, making decisions can be a tough task, and to avoid the stress that comes from it, they just agree with the masses, or choose to remain quiet.
Sometimes, a person’s opinion may raise moral debates and questions, and to avoid such situations, a person chooses to conform.
Now we know what pushes people to engage in groupthink behavior. So how do we identify the occurrence of groupthink? Let us look at the tell-tale signs!
Symptoms of Groupthink
The effects of groupthink is far reaching and it can be seen in a varied number of fields ranging from political science, social psychology and counseling, to organizational studies, management studies, marketing and strategy, and everything in between. This can adversely affect each of these fields, which is why being able to identify such behavior is integral, and is the first step to finding a solution.
According to Janis, the following 8 factors could be viewed as the main symptoms of “groupthink”:
Type I: Overestimations of the Groups
Illusions of Invulnerability
When they come to make certain decisions that were unanimous and successful, they tend to get complacent and feel like they are protected from making wrong decisions because of the kind of team that has been put together. This further encourages them to take more risks.
Unquestioned Belief in Group Morality
Being such a highly cohesive groups that shares similar ideals, they have the false sense of belief that their decisions must all be morally correct, thus forcing them to ignore the consequences of such decisions.
Type II: Close-mindedness
While making decisions, despite suggestions and validations of a certain choice being harmful or incorrect, the group tries to rationalize their actions with misguided notions.
One of the most harmful consequences of groupthink is the stereotyping of those people who do not share the views, ideals, and opinions of the “in-group”. This is both a cause and an effect of groupthink and can be considered a vicious cycle.
Type III: Pressures Towards Conformity
Out of the fear of being belittled, outcast, stereotyped, and being mocked at, members try to suppress their personal opinions in favors of unanimous decision.
Illusions of Unanimity
Some members tend to remain silent in order to avoid conflict, and this silence is viewed as an agreement towards the decision in question. So despite the doubts that are present, all decisions seem unanimous.
Those who tend to argue with the group’s view or go against their decision is viewed as disloyal or lacking team spirit. This type of pressure leads again to conformity.
Some members of the team become self-appointed “mindguards” who protect the group from contradictory views and opinions.
We know now how to spot such occurrences but let us look at some examples from different situations and fields that will help us understand this phenomenon better!
Examples of Groupthink
In American History
The very idea of groupthink evolved around Janis’ study of different political events that took place during the course of American history, and the decisions that eventually let to harsh consequences. These have been mentioned in his 1982 book “Groupthink: Psychological Sutdies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.”
According to the study done by Janis, the Vietnam War occurred because of faulty decision-making as a result of groupthink by the soldiers and authorities at Pearl Harbor. The government had already intercepted Japanese messages which indicated that they were planning a full-frontal attack on the U.S. Harbor, and they had warned their authorities in Hawaii. But the officials had a false belief that Japan would never initiate such an attack because they were bound to be defeated by U.S. forces eventually. The rest is history.
Bay of Pigs Invasion
Under the administration of Eisenhower, the CIA planned to infiltrate Cuba and launch a military attack within the country. When Kennedy took over, he gave green signal to this attack, despite concerns raised by figures such as Arthur Schlesinger and William Fulbright, the invasion resulted in a fiasco where the U.S. forces were defeated by the Cuban army within 3 days.
Cuban Missile Crisis
Following their failure in the previous invasion, Kennedy took new measure to make sure such a fiasco was not repeated. When news came of the Soviet Union helping Cuba set up missile on their homeground to protect themselves from further military attack, Kennedy formed different groups to come up with solutions, absented himself from certain decision-making meetings, and involved specialists to overview the meeting to ensure that all bases had be covered to deal with the crisis. Eventually, the U.S came to an agreement with the Soviets where the latter was to remove the missile from Cuba provided that the U.S. destroyed one of their own, thus avoiding any further tension between the parties involved.
Space Shuttle Challengers
Despite warnings from engineers about some concerns regarding the mechanics of the space shuttle, NASA chose to ignore the warnings, in order to avoid postponing the launch of the shuttle. They believed that their initial testing were proof enough to support the working of the Challenger. Unfortunately, NASA was wrong and within minutes of liftoff, the space shuttle got destroyed, killing all seven members on board.
Looking at these examples, groupthink evolved from mere hypothesis to examples of occurrences in real life.
In Movies and Popular Culture
The book Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which was later made into a film, looks into the story of a group of boys who get deserted on an island and by forming groups, and having false mutual beliefs, it eventually led to the loss of friendship, death of young kids, and a loss of morality on the whole.
The short film Kony 12 was released by the charity organization Invisible Children, Inc. which was based on war criminal and fugitive Joseph Kony, in an effort to garner support for his arrest and charge him for the brutal crimes he had committed – one of them being hiring children to be foot soldiers. The video went viral, gaining over 99 million views. The problem here was, though the organization was portraying correct facts, the people didn’t realize that the whole idea was to raise money, and most of the money being raised by ICI, was going into funding films like this. Social media facilitated the idea of groupthink without presenting every side of the story.
The movie Mean Girls is a classic example of groupthink where the “popular girl” had followers who together believed that everything they did and the way the acted was correct, and they stereotyped those who were different as “losers.”
The 1957 movie 12 Angry Men is an example of how consensus-building can lead to faulty judgment. The movie revolves around a jury of 12 men who have to decide whether a many was guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and as is known, to indict a criminal the decision of the jury must be unanimous.
The 2008 film The Wave, explores the social experiment by Ron Jones known as The Third Wave. It tries to demonstrate how even democratic countries can be swayed to accept fascism. The holocaust itself can be viewed as an example of groupthink, where the Nazis believed that what they were doing was for the greater good of the nation, leading to the loss of millions of lives.
If we look at social media today, the mass input we get from different nations lead us to believe that “If everyone does it, it must be right”. Take for example the Ice Bucket Challenge. What was started out as an attempt to raise awareness and charity money, ended up being a popularity stunt done by thousands across the globe who forgot the real idea behind the whole challenge.
We see so many memes on social networking sights where people air their views, and get ‘likes’ and ‘tweets’ in return. If a person airs an opinion contradictory to/or opposing the one stated, he is ostracized and seen as a spoilsport, or hater or party-pooper.
There was a time when educators believed that “teachers are meant to tells us how to think, not what to think”. But today many classrooms do exactly the opposite, they either tend to propagate liberal ideas and stereotype the opposing views, or vice versa.
Take for example the Mensa International, a group of individuals with high IQ and exceptional creativity and thinking skills. Those within the organization who didn’t fit in formed what they called “Special Interest Group for Reform in Mensa”. This group aimed to overthrow the genius behind the organization itself by filling false conceptions of the individuals into the minds of the group members.
One of the reasons for groupthink to become a part of the course for business students is the examples from history that have proved the negative effects of groupthink on decision-making.
What was once known as the “Flying Bank” due to its high commercial success, Swissair soon became a victim of groupthink when they believed in the group’s morality and invulnerability. They fired many of their advisors and authorities, and board members who had no knowledge about certain fields, took harsh decisions which eventually let to the bankruptcy and dissolution of the company.
Another example is the misdirected decisions made by Marks and Spencer and the British Airways. Believing that they were invulnerable to loss, due to their years of profit, they took certain expansion strategies that led to a fall in both their stock market shares from 590 to 300, and 740 to 300 respectively during the period of 1998-1999.
In 1999, the Major League Umpires Associations staged a mass resignation, with the false belief of their importance in the baseball league, and with the hope that this might get them a strong negotiating position. This failed, and pretty much all of them were happily replaced.
Now we know how drastic the consequences of groupthink can be. So let us look at the ways in which we can prevent groupthink from occurring.
How To Avoid Groupthink
Janis covered all his bases when he researched and wrote about this phenomenon. Along with the causes, and symptoms, he also provided a guideline which would help reduce the chances of groupthink from manifesting. Here are the methods:
His first suggestion was that the leader must appoint one of the members as the “critical evaluator” who would weigh the value of the decisions made by the group.
Next, the leader must avoid expressing his personal opinions while assigning tasks, in order to reduce the pressure on other members to conform with them.
He should be absent from meeting where valuable decisions are being made, again, in order to avoid swaying the members’ opinions.
The leader should set up several independent groups who will simultaneously work on a specific task in order to facilitate different view points and inputs to be made freely and from a broader perspective on a particular task.
All alternatives that were or weren’t disregarded must be examined and re-examined in order to allow the best decision to be made.
Each member must discuss their opinions with a trusted member outside the group to get a third-party, unbiased view on the matter at hand.
Experts of the particular field must be invited from outside the group/company who can overlook the meetings and who can be questioned, so that the team can ensure that the best decision is being made.
One member must be appointed as the “Devil’s advocate” for each meeting. This way each viewpoint can be dissected and the best possible solution can be arrived at.
The concept of groupthink has seen both believers and critics. Nonetheless, it has become an important field of study in order to enhance the performance of both the decision-making groups, as well as the company (if that is the case in question) as a whole.