What Is Groupthink?

Putting their heads together Cropped shot of a group of business colleagues meeting in the boardroom
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What Is Groupthink?

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group. In many cases, people will set aside their own personal beliefs or adopt the opinion of the rest of the group. The term was first used in 1972 by social psychologist Irving L. Janis.

People who are opposed to the decisions or overriding opinion of the group as a whole frequently remain quiet, preferring to keep the peace rather than disrupt the uniformity of the crowd. The phenomenon can be problematic, but even well-intentioned people are prone to making irrational decisions in the face of overwhelming pressure from the group.

Signs of Groupthink

Groupthink may not always be easy to discern, but there are some signs that it is present. There are also some situations where it may be more likely to occur. Janis identified a number of different "symptoms" that indicate groupthink.

  • Illusions of invulnerability lead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking. When no one speaks out or voices an alternative opinion, it causes people to believe that the group must be right.
  • Unquestioned beliefs lead members to ignore possible moral problems and ignore the consequences of individual and group actions.
  • Rationalizing prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
  • Stereotyping leads members of the in-group to ignore or even demonize out-group members who may oppose or challenge the group's ideas. This causes members of the group to ignore important ideas or information.
  • Self-censorship causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings. Rather than sharing what they know, people remain quiet and assume that the group must know best.
  • "Mindguards" act as self-appointed censors to hide problematic information from the group. Rather than sharing important information, they keep quiet or actively prevent sharing.
  • Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way. It is often much more difficult to speak out when it seems that everyone else in the group is on the same page.
  • Direct pressure to conform is often placed on members who pose questions, and those who question the group are often seen as disloyal or traitorous.

How It Works

Why does groupthink occur? Think about the last time you were part of a group, perhaps during a school project. Imagine that someone proposes an idea that you think is quite poor.

However, everyone else in the group agrees with the person who suggested the idea, and the group seems set on pursuing that course of action. Do you voice your dissent or do you just go along with the majority opinion?

In many cases, people end up engaging in groupthink when they fear that their objections might disrupt the harmony of the group or suspect that their ideas might cause other members to reject them.

Causes

A number of factors can influence this psychological phenomenon. Some causes:

  • Group identity: It tends to occur more in situations where group members are very similar to one another. When there is strong group identity, members of the group tend to perceive their group as correct or superior while expressing disdain or disapproval toward people outside of the group.
  • Leader influences: Groupthink is also more likely to take place when a powerful and charismatic leader commands the group.
  • Low knowledge: When people lack personal knowledge of something or feel that other members of the group are more qualified, they are more likely to engage in groupthink.
  • Stress: Situations where the group is placed under extreme stress or where moral dilemmas exist also increase the occurrence of groupthink.

Contributing Factors

Janis suggested that groupthink tends to be the most prevalent in conditions:

  • When there is a high degree of cohesiveness.
  • When there are situational factors that contribute to deferring to the group (such as external threats, moral problems, difficult decisions).
  • When there are structural issues (such as group isolation and a lack of impartial leadership).

Impact of Groupthink

Groupthink can cause people to ignore important information and can ultimately lead to poor decisions. This can be damaging even in minor situations but can have much more dire consequences in certain situations or settings. Medical, military, or political decisions, for example, can lead to unfortunate outcomes when they are impaired by the effects of groupthink.

The phenomenon can have high costs. These include:

  • The suppression of individual opinions and creative thought can lead to poor decision-making and inefficient problem-solving.
  • It can contribute to group members engaging in self-censorship. This tendency to seek consensus above all else also means that group members may not adequately assess the potential risks versus benefits of a decision. 
  • Groupthink also tends to lead group members to perceive the group as inherently moral or right. Stereotyped beliefs about other groups can contribute to this biased sense of rightness.

It is important to note that while groupthink and conformity are similar and related concepts, there are important distinctions between the two. Groupthink involves the decision-making process. Conformity can sometimes cause groupthink, but it isn't always the motivating factor. Conformity, on the other hand, is a process in which people change their own actions so they can fit in with a specific group.

Potential Pitfalls

While groupthink can generate consensus, it is by definition a negative phenomenon that results in faulty or uninformed thinking and decision-making. Some of the problems it can cause include:

  • Blindness to potentially negative outcomes
  • Failure to listen to people with dissenting opinions
  • Lack of creativity
  • Lack of preparation to deal with negative outcomes
  • Ignoring important information
  • Inability to see other solutions
  • Not looking for things that might not yet be known to the group
  • Obedience to authority without question
  • Overconfidence in decisions
  • Resistance to new information or ideas

Group consensus can allow groups to make decisions, complete tasks, and finish projects quickly and efficiently—but even the most harmonious groups can benefit from some challenges. Finding ways to reduce groupthink can improve decision-making and assure amicable relationships within the group.

Tips / Tricks

There are steps that groups can take to minimize this problem. First, leaders can give group members the opportunity to express their own ideas or argue against ideas that have already been proposed.

Breaking up members into smaller independent teams can also be helpful. Here are some more ideas that might help prevent groupthink.

  • Initially, the leader of the group should avoid stating their opinions or preferences when assigning tasks. Give people time to come up with their own ideas first.
  • Assign at least one individual to take the role of the "devil's advocate."
  • Discuss the group's ideas with an outside member in order to get impartial opinions.
  • Encourage group members to remain critical. Don't discourage dissent or challenges to the prevailing opinion.
  • Before big decisions, leaders should hold a "second-chance" meeting where members have the opportunity to express any remaining doubts.
  • Reward creativity and give group members regular opportunities to share their ideas and thoughts.

Diversity among group members has also been shown to enhance decision-making and reduce groupthink.

When people in groups have diverse backgrounds and experiences, they are better able to bring different perspectives, information, and ideas to the table. This enhances decisions and makes it less likely that groups will fall into groupthink patterns.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Janis IL.Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1972.