What Is Groupthink? Definition and Examples

Why Groups Sometimes Make Bad Decisions

Group of business people on a meeting.
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Groupthink is a process through which the desire for consensus in groups can lead to poor decisions. Rather than object to them and risk losing a sense of group solidarity, members may remain silent and lend their support.

Key Takeaways

  • Groupthink occurs when a group values cohesiveness and unanimity more than making the right decision.
  • In situations characterized by groupthink, individuals may self-censor criticism of the group decision, or group leaders may suppress dissenting information.
  • Although groupthink leads to making suboptimal decisions, group leaders can take steps to avoid groupthink and improve decision-making processes.

Overview

Groupthink was first studied by Irving Janis, who was interested in understanding why groups with intelligent, knowledgeable group members sometimes made poorly-considered decisions. We’ve all seen examples of poor decisions made by groups: think, for example, of blunders made by political candidates, inadvertently offensive advertising campaigns, or an ineffective strategic decision by the managers of a sports team. When you see an especially bad public decision, you may even wonder, “How did so many people not realize this was a bad idea?” Groupthink, essentially, explains how this happens.

Importantly, groupthink isn’t inevitable when groups of people work together, and they can sometimes make better decisions than individuals. In a well-functioning group, members can pool their knowledge and engage in constructive debate to make a better decision than individuals would on their own. However, in a groupthink situation, these benefits of group decision-making are lost because individuals may suppress questions about the group’s decision or don't share information that the group would need in order to reach an effective decision.

When Are Groups at Risk of Groupthink?

Groups may be more likely to experience groupthink when particular conditions are met. In particular, highly cohesive groups may be at higher risk. For example, if the group members are close to each other (if they’re friends in addition to having a working relationship, for instance) they may be hesitant to speak up and question their fellow group members’ ideas. Groupthink is also thought to be more likely when groups don’t seek out other perspectives (e.g. from outside experts).

The leader of a group can also create groupthink situations. For example, if a leader makes his or her preferences and opinions known, group members may be hesitant to publicly question the leader’s opinion. Another risk factor for groupthink occurs when groups are making stressful or high-stakes decisions; in these situations, going with the group may be a safer choice than voicing a potentially controversial opinion.

Characteristics of Groupthink

When groups are highly cohesive, don’t seek outside perspectives, and are working in high-stress situations, they can be at risk for experiencing characteristics of groupthink. In situations such as these, a variety of processes occurs which inhibit the free discussion of ideas and cause members to go along with the group instead of voicing dissent.

  1. Seeing the group as infallible. People may think that the group is better at making decisions than it actually is. In particular, group members may suffer from what Janis called the illusion of invulnerability: the assumption that the group can’t possibly make a major error. Groups can also hold the belief that whatever the group is doing is right and moral (not considering that others might question the ethics of a decision).
  2. Not being open-minded. Groups may make efforts to justify and rationalize their initial decision, rather than considering potential pitfalls of their plan or other alternatives. When the group does see potential signs that its decision may be misguided, members may try to rationalize why their initial decision is correct (rather than changing their actions in light of new information). In situations where there’s a conflict or competition with another group, they may also hold negative stereotypes about the other group and underestimate their capabilities.
  3. Valuing conformity over free discussion. In groupthink situations, there’s little room for people to voice dissenting opinions. Individual members may self-censor and avoid questioning the group’s actions. This can lead to what Janis called the illusion of unanimity: many people doubt the group’s decision, but it appears the group is unanimous because no one is willing to voice their dissent publicly. Some members (whom Janis called mindguards) may even directly put pressure on other members to conform with the group, or they may not share information that would question the group’s decision.

When groups are unable to freely debate ideas, they can end up using flawed decision-making processes. They may not give fair consideration to alternatives and may not have a backup plan if their initial idea fails. They may avoid information that would question their decision, and instead focus on information that supports what they already believe (which is known as the confirmation bias).

Example

To get an idea of how groupthink might work in practice, imagine you’re part of a company that is trying to develop a new advertising campaign for a consumer product. The rest of your team seems excited about the campaign but you have some concerns. However, you’re reluctant to speak up because you like your coworkers and don’t want to publicly embarrass them by questioning their idea. You also don’t know what to suggest that your team do instead, because most of the meetings have involved talking about why this campaign is good, instead of considering other possible advertising campaigns. Briefly, you talk to your immediate supervisor and mention to her your concerns about the campaign. However, she tells you not to derail a project that everyone is so excited about and fails to relay your concerns to the team leader. At that point, you may decide that going along with the group is the strategy that makes the most sense—you don’t want to stand out for going against a popular strategy. After all, you tell yourself, if it’s such a popular idea among your coworkers—whom you like and respect—can it really be such a bad idea?

Situations such as this one show that groupthink can happen relatively easily. When there are strong pressures to conform to the group, we may not voice our true thoughts. In cases like this, we can even experience the illusion of unanimity: while many people may privately disagree, we go along with the group’s decision—which can lead the group to make a bad decision.

Historical Examples

One famous example of groupthink was the United States’ decision to launch an attack against Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. The attack was ultimately unsuccessful, and Janis found that many characteristics of groupthink were present among the key decision-makers. Other examples Janis examined included the United States not preparing for a potential attack on Pearl Harbor and its escalation of involvement in the Vietnam War. Since Janis developed his theory, numerous research projects have sought to test the elements of his theory. Psychologist Donelson Forsyth, who researches group processes, explains that, although not all research has supported Janis’ model, it has been highly influential in understanding how and why groups can sometimes make poor decisions.

Avoiding Groupthink

Although groupthink can hinder the ability of groups to make effective decisions, Janis suggested that there are several strategies that groups could use to avoid falling victim to groupthink. One involves encouraging group members to voice their opinions and to question the group’s thinking on an issue. Similarly, one person can be asked to be a “devil’s advocate” and point out potential pitfalls in the plan.

Group leaders can also try to prevent groupthink by avoiding sharing their opinion up front, so that group members don’t feel pressured to agree with the leader. Groups can also break into smaller sub-groups and then discuss each sub-group’s idea when the larger group reunites.

Another way of preventing groupthink is by seeking outside experts to offer opinions, and talking to people who are not part of the group to get their feedback on the group’s ideas.

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