Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon occurring within a cohesive group of individuals, wherein the independent and/or critical opinions of individual group members are disregarded in an effort to maintain conformity and unity within the group. The motive behind such an exercise is to preserve the collective status quo of the group by ensuring that there exists no outside influences and no conflict of opinion within the group. As such, groupthink suppresses any creative suggestions that may arise from independent and rational thinking as long as they differ from the general consensus. Consequently, such an approach often leads to suboptimal decisions and irrational actions.
A Little More on What is Groupthink
“None of us is as dumb (sic) as all of us.” — a quotation popularized by NASA astronaut and public speaker, Mark Kelly meticulously sums up the detriments of the groupthink phenomenon in rather simple language.
Groupthink is surprisingly common in a business setting — the quest for consensus often forces employees as well as supervisors to deliberately overlook potential problems and engage in self-censorship of critical opinions or alternative solutions. The term groupthink was introduced in the November 1971 issue of Psychology Today in an article by Irving Janis, a social psychologist at Yale University. According to Janis, groupthink is a phenomenon wherein a group makes suboptimal decisions owing to group social pressures. Janis formulated the following eight symptoms indicative of groupthink:
- Overestimations of the group’s power and influence — excessive and unjustifiable optimism and a flawed sense of invincibility, often leading to unwarranted risk-taking.
- Unquestioned confidence in the group’s morality, leading members to shun responsibility for their actions .
- Rationalization of counterproductive behavior and decisions and an utter disregard for any suggestions that seek to challenge the group’s assumptions.
- Collective prejudice against individuals with critical opinions, often stereotyping such individuals as partisan, malicious and incompetent.
- Censorship of ideas or opinions that deviate from the general consensus apparently reached within the group.
- Delusion of unanimity within the group, with silence being equated with agreement and consent.
- Strong-arming members with critical opinions to conform with the group’s decisions, often using threats of declaring such members as “disloyal”.
- Mindguarding — a phenomenon wherein certain members of the group take it upon themselves to shield the group from dissenting information.
Case Studies and Real-World Examples of Groupthink
The following are a few real-world examples of how the phenomenon of groupthink caused devastating results in the diverse fields of war and space research.
- The Explosion of NASA’s Challenger: On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, NASA’s space shuttle, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing the entire seven-person crew of STS-51L that was on board the spacecraft. This was the first time in its history of space research and exploration that NASA had lost a crew on a mission. Investigations revealed that the tragedy was mostly a result of a series of poor decisions on the part of some NASA personnel. On the day before the launch, engineers from Morton Thiokol, the firm that built the solid rocket boosters for the Challenger, notified flight managers at NASA that the O-ring seals on the booster rockets were not designed for temperatures below 53 °F and as such, they would definitely fail in the freezing temperatures forecast for the morning. However, the NASA flight managers chose to disregard the warning call and gave their go-ahead for the launch — in fact, not even a mention was made to the flight readiness reviewers of the objections put forward by the very people that built the rocket boosters. This is another example of groupthink causing devastating damage to life and property — it was not just that seven people lost their lives, but that NASA lost seven of its most valuable assets to the ‘necessity’ of reaching a collective consensus.
How to Prevent Groupthink?
Several proposals have been put forward that seek to either prevent groupthink or minimize its risks. These are:
- Allocating sufficient time for a full and thorough discussion of issues and allowing as many group members as possible to share their ideas.
- Introducing multiple channels for dissent in the decision-making process, with the view that encouraging dissent actually reduces the likelihood for occurrence of groupthink.
- Adopting various mechanisms that seek to preserve the accessibility and heterogeneity of a given group.
- Educating the group about common cognitive biases and how to identify them.
References for “Groupthink”