Fordham University: Michael D. High's "Groupthink"

Read this article for an overview and some examples of the theory of groupthink, which helps us understand how communication practices and deference to others in group decision making can have a negative effect on outcomes.

“Groupthink,” labeled by Irving Janus in his book “Victims of Groupthink,” explains the phenomenon that occurs in groups of small sizes that occurs when the desire to “preserve group harmony” (according to Janus), is greater than the desire to make effective and well-thought out decisions, and judgment thereby suffers.This means that a group is more concerned with the interaction of the group, rather than the task at hand. For example, if a small group of friends contains 5 friends go to the beach to tan on a whim, but don’t have time to properly pack a car, so they don’t bring sunscreen or an umbrella. One of the friends is quite prone to sunburn, but not wishing to burden the group, goes along with the no-sun protection idea because everyone else seems fine with it. As a result, the pale friend goes home with sun poisoning and the rest even have mild cases of sunburn, all thanks to groupthink.

There are several assumptions of Groupthink; one is that conditions in the group promote high cohesiveness, which happen when members tend to have compatible values and behaviors, and are willing to work together. Another is that group problem solving is primarily a unified process, meaning that problem solving tends to occur in small groups which are unlikely to want to disrupt the process by dissenting. The final assumption is that group decision making are frequently complex, as there are many factors that affect how groups work together, from age, background, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. Groups that are very similar to each other tend to be predisposed to groupthink, since the chance of dissent is less likely.

Dangerous characteristics as a result of Groupthink are homogeneity, lack of effort, and conformity. Homogeneity is the quality of a group being exactly the same or alike. This leads to a need for diversity within the group. Lack of effort or interest is one of the many qualities of groupthink, as people are more interested in relationships amongst each other than the task at hand. Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms, which leads to people often conform from a desire for security within a group. Some antecedents to Groupthink are cohesiveness, group insulation, lack of impartial leadership, lack of decision making procedures and stress. Antecedent factors play into the likelihood of whether or not groupthink will impact the decision-making process.

Symptoms of Groupthink include overestimation of the group, illusion of invulnerability, belief in the inherent morality of the group, closed-mindedness, out-group stereotypes (which are skewed perceptions of outsiders or enemies to the group), collective rationalization, pressures towards uniformity, self-censorship, self-appointed mindguards, and pressures on dissenters. A symptom from the example above is self-censorship; to not upset the group, the pale friend did not point out the flaw in the plan of not packing sun protection. The best ways to prevent groupthink are to be sure the group has all necessary information, agree on an objective, analyze all possible outcomes, and have a backup plan in case the first plan fails.

Key Terms:

  1. Groupthink: a phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect decision-making outcome.
  2. Cohesiveness: the extent to which group members are willing to work together
  3. Homogeneity: the similarity of members of a group
  4. Self-appointed mindguards: individuals who protect the group from adverse information
  5. Conscientious objectors: group members who refuse to participate because it would violate personal conscience.
  6. Whistle-blowing: a process in which individuals report unethical or illegal behaviors or practices to others
Last modified: Friday, August 31, 2018, 2:14 PM