In a continuing series of articles regarding barriers to Proper Thinking let’s address Groupthink.
“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” – Walter Lippmann
What is Groupthink?
Wikipedia: “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.”
William H. Whyte, Jr. coined the term in a March 1952 Fortune magazine article of the same title. He spoke more from a “social engineering” perspective, relating how the nation as a whole is moving away from a focus on individualism and independence, and rather towards the rationalized conformity of ‘groups.’
“What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity – an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.”
– William H. Whyte, Jr.
On an individual psychological level Groupthink relates strongly to Conformism.
Irving Janus – Father of Groupthink
The largest contributor and impact in identifying the actual elements of Groupthink was Yale University research psychologist Irving Janis in his 1972 book: Victims of Groupthink. (The revised 1982 title is Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.)
“I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.”
From Janis’ perspective he primarily focused on groupthink as it relates to smaller functional (or more correctly dysfunctional) groups such as you might find in government and business. From what I can gather he doesn’t address it from a national mindset (such as in the related phenomenon of Social Conditioning). He and other researchers specifically mention many screwed-up policy decisions made in government due to the influence of groupthink: the Bay of Pigs disaster, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Challenger explosion and the invasion of Iraq due to supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
“The advantages of having decisions made by groups are often lost because of powerful psychological pressures that arise when the members work closely together, share the same set of values and, above all, face a crisis situation that puts everyone under intense stress.” – Irving Janus
Symptoms of Groupthink
The symptomatic elements identified by Janis include:
- Illusions of invulnerability – there is excessive optimism and risk taking in the group; the group overestimates its abilities and strength
- Belief in inherent morality – an unquestioned belief in the group’s morality and ignoring consequences of their decision
- Collective rationalizations – the group collectively constructs rationalizations that challenge their assumptions
- Stereotyping – the group holds stereotyped and dehumanized views of out-groups, labelling them as weak, evil, stupid, etc
- Self-censorship – the group eliminates ideas that deviate from the consensus
- Illusions of unanimity – silence is viewed as agreement
- Peer Pressure – there is direct pressure on dissenters to conform rather than question the group
- Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – individuals in the group protect the leader from dissenting views
Ultimately these can be summarized and grouped into three major types of symptoms:
– Overestimation of the group
– Pressures toward uniformity
The group becomes blind to facts that don’t align with the its culture or mission.
Causes of Groupthink
- High in-group cohesiveness – avoidance of argument, dissension or disagreement; deindividuation; social pressure to conform
- Insulation of the group from dissenting opinions and alternative decisions
- Closed style leadership – the leader isn’t impartial
- Homogeneity of the group’s members’ social backgrounds and ideology
- Perceived stress due to external threats
- Time pressures
- Moral dilemmas
Psychological experiments by Solomon Ash, have shown that pressure to conform can cause a person to conform simply because it’s less stressful than challenging the group.
Some Results of Groupthink
— Quality of decision making is progressively compromised
— Concurrence seeking rather than making the right decision
— Judgment and diversity of opinion are sacrificed
— Irrational/dysfunctional decisions
— Collective confirmation bias
— Rigid conformity is pushed; suppression of independent thinking and creativity
— Counterarguments and counter-evidence is rationalized away
— Dissent is seen as unnecessary
— Autocratic, bullying, deceitful, dogmatic leadership
How to prevent Groupthink
- Leaders should assign members to be critical evaluators
- Leaders should not express their opinion regarding a group task
- Set-up independent groups working on the same task
- Examine all effective alternatives
- Discuss with trusted people outside the group
- Gather relevant information from outside sources
- Invite outside experts
- Assign someone the role of “Devil’s Advocate”
- Encourage ideas to be challenged
- Examine risks of the agreed-to decision
- Objectively obtain and consider all information related to the decision at hand
One of the most valuable traits for people in general, and leaders in particular, is to understand the limits of their knowledge, and to seek out sources and individuals who can help fill those gaps. Unfortunately this is rare in individuals. It takes courage to state that you “don’t know.”
How to Personally Avoid Groupthink
What should you do personally to avoid Groupthink if you find yourself in a group that could default to this cognitive error?
- Acknowledge its existence – Like any other cognitive bias/error, the first step is to acknowledge that you and the group in which you participate are susceptible to this effect.
- Discuss it with the other group members – Humbly share with the group your concern for this issue and request that everyone keep it in mind.
- Don’t be silent – Ingroup silence is considered as unanimous agreement. Speak up, even if it’s to say you don’t quite agree or something doesn’t seem right. You can always agree later if the decision is found to be sound.
- Be the “devil’s advocate” or skeptic – As someone who is willing to speak up, bring up various potential pitfalls with the decision the group is wanting to select. Bring up alternative information and courses of action. Be an advocate for accuracy and optimal decision making.
Ultimately, the only way out of Groupthink is to lead – not follow. Simply state, “I dissent” or “I disagree.” Be the person who opens the door for other people to speak up as well (since they likely don’t want to be the first to question a decision and are waiting for others to open up). This takes courage and confidence – a strong self-esteem.
How to gain that level of confidence? Two things really:
- Read, absorb, adopt the guidelines presented on this site. Expand your knowledge, and your humbleness to know you can’t know everything. Yet realize you can know more than most and make more informed and rational decisions about life. I’ve said in other articles that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. And the corollary to that is, the more you learn, the more you realize that rarely does anyone know. I used to have low confidence and self-esteem. A decision I made to expand my horizons: seek, learn and grow – naturally increased my self-confidence to challenge ideas and stand up for a pursuit of accuracy and truth. Knowledge is confidence.
- Don’t be a “joiner. Don’t get hung up on being a member of a group. Be happy and proud to be a critical, independent thinker. Don’t care what others think of you. Get comfortable with your own self and your thoughts.
“In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea . . . gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive it with disdain or with hot rage – if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries. I have had some experience of this myself . . . No good can come of dealing with such people, especially to the extent that their company may be not only unpleasant but dangerous.”
– Galileo Galilei
Some decent online sources: (there are many others of course)
- Groupthink, Wikipedia
- Groupthink & Conformity, Sandra L. Bloom, M.D.
- Avoiding Groupthink, Mindtools.com
- Groupthink, Softpanorama.org