What is groupthink?

The word ‘groupthink’ refers to a strange phenomenon that happens when people come together in groups to make important decisions. It is what happens when a group of well-intentioned, experienced and intelligent people come together and collectively make bad decisions.

Groupthink applies whenever people get together in groups. Meaning it can influence students in a classroom, to business people in a boardroom. Even government figures are influenced by groupthink — in fact, groupthink is often even more powerful in such circumstances.

What are the consequences of groupthink?

When people come together and discuss things in groups, such as decision-making and critical thinking, they are immediately subject to social pressures. Most of these pressures we don’t even realise affect us — but they do. One of these social pressures is the pressure to conform. To fit in and go along with everyone else. The result is that, in a lot of cases, groups tend to not discuss ideas as thoroughly as they should do — for fear of upsetting those around them.

In the world of risk management, it is important to understand groupthink because conforming groups end up taking more risks or implementing more risky behaviours than they would do individually.

Who came up with the groupthink definition?

The theory of groupthink was first developed by Irving Janis, a social psychologist. Janis’ groupthink was first published in a 1972 titled ‘Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes’.

In his study, Janis suggested that groupthink was behind the poor decisions made in the United States’ foreign policy. Including the escalation of the Vietnam War, Pearl Harbour, and the Bay of Pigs invasion (a failed attack on the country of Cuba).

The symptoms of groupthink psychology

Decades on from Irving Janis’ groupthink study, there has been a lot of social psychology work undertaken in order to understand why poor decision-making so often arises when intelligent, seeming-rational individuals get together.

Psychologists now think there are eight ‘symptoms’ that define groupthink. Sometimes they are worded differently, depending on which study you look at, but essentially they are:

  • Interpersonal pressure — In groups, we feel enormous pressure to reach an agreement with the other members of the group. Even if we don’t fully agree, we are more likely to just “fit in with the crowd”. Another type of pressure is direct pressure. In these cases, group members keep quiet so that they aren’t branded ‘disloyal’.
  • Self-censorship — The desire for group cohesiveness is so strong that people will often keep their personal opinions to themselves. In such situations, people ignore warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions by self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  • Mind Guards — similar to the self-censorship symptom. A mind guard is someone who omits information. They leave it out if they think it will jeopardize what is a strong social desire to keep a cohesive group.
  • The illusion of unanimity — if everyone is too afraid to voice their opinions, then it creates the illusion of a group consensus. If it seems that everyone is in agreement, this makes it even harder to disagree with the group.
  • The illusion of invulnerability — If no one is objecting, complaining, or criticising the group leader or decision-makers, then it can seem like everything is going well. This in turn can breed over-confidence, creating excessive optimism that encourages risk-taking.
  • The illusion of the morality of the group — The desire to see the group succeed can be so strong that it even overrides an individual’s sense of right and wrong. An unquestioned belief in the morality of the group can cause members to ignore the consequences of moral dilemmas and their actions.
  • Biased perceptions of the outgroup — A tightly cohesive group can, in time, come to stereotype and discriminate against the ‘others’ that are not involved in the group. The result is that ‘outsiders’ are devalued and considered not as proper or as important as the ingroup. This is sometimes referred to as negative cohesion.
  • A defective decision-making process — More often than not, groupthink situations result in the deciding on and execution of wrong, improper, or poor decisions. All of the above symptoms compound together to shut out or omit alternatives — and what could be — better decisions.

The consequences of groupthink

Groupthink adds social pressures on groups to seek unanimous agreement even in the face of contrary facts pointing to another conclusion.

In business, groupthink tends to occur when groups strive to reach consensus despite organisational flaws. A high degree of homogeneity in social background and ideology in the group — combined with extreme pressure or stress — make groupthink even more likely to occur.

In business, some common consequences of groupthink include:

  • Incomplete survey of objectives.
  • Incomplete assessment of alternatives.
  • Failure to examine risks of the preferred choice.
  • Failure to re-evaluate previously rejected alternatives.
  • Poor information research.
  • Selection bias in collecting information.
  • Failure to work out contingency plans.

Groupthink FAQs

Groupthink theory is the idea that, when in groups, people tend to be more agreeable than normal. As a result, groups of people do not challenge, test, or evaluate ideas as strictly as they should do. There is a pressure to conform and “go along with the crowd”, which can stop people from thinking clearly.

When we work with a group of people, lots of psychological forces are at play. Including a pressure to “fit in” (conform) and to not want to upset the group even if you think you have recognised a flaw in the group’s decision-making (self-censorship). These are just two reasons. There are eight symptoms of groupthink in all.

In groups, people are more likely to go along (and not upset) the people around them. Oftentimes, we don’t even notice these group-pressures and they subconsciously influence us. Groupthink is bad because it seriously inhibits creative, challenging and independent thought. This can lead the group to make unanimous bad decisions.

Start by learning about groupthink behaviour and why it happens, and encourage everyone else in the group to do so. Openly encourage challenging behaviour and dissenting voices. More importantly, discuss the group’s ideas with each person one-on-one, and invite a group outsider for an impartial opinion.

More groupthink examples from history

In recent memory, victims of groupthink include the Enron scandal; the collapse of Northern Rock and Lehman Bros, and the failings of the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS). In the case of HBOS, the company’s risk manager later went on to say he was “censored” for raising concerns regarding the company’s strategy.

Historically, perhaps the most famous example of groupthink comes from Irving Janis’ research. In his 1972 study, Janis highlighted how the US government’s disastrous attempt to overthrow the Communist Cuban government was a failure of groupthink.

Very briefly, the plan was for the US military to invade Cuba, and they landed in 1961 in the Bay of Pigs area with a large group of Cuban exiles. Within three days, virtually all of the military forces were dead or captured. Part of the reason behind the failure was that President Kennedy approved the invasion based on advice from a “team of experts”. The team made a number of assumptions that proved to be false. Including:

  • The assumption that the invasion would trigger a popular uprising amongst the Cuban people.
  • There would be no requirement to retreat from the Bay of Pigs after landing.

Janis’ 1972 study concluded that the “team of experts” did not consider alternative viewpoints once they had reached their consensus. They then passed on the defective decision-making process that culminated in the failed invasion along to their president, Mr. Kennedy.

Another infamous groupthink disaster in popular culture is the ill-fated NASA Challenger rocket launch. Despite warnings from the engineers who built the space rocket, the “group” agreed to go ahead with it anyway.

How to avoid groupthink? 

Once we understand what groupthink as a phenomenon is, it becomes easier to identify and to avoid. From an organisational perspective, here are some critical things to do:

  • Bring in external experts to challenge the group thinking.
  • Set up multiple groups to work on the same issue.
  • Appoint a “devil’s advocate” for key meetings to test conclusions.
  • Have the senior management deliberately avoid expressing opinions before key meetings/projects.

When president Kennedy was faced with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, he seemed to have learned well from the Bay of Pigs. During planning meetings, he invited outside experts to share their views, and allowed group members to question them thoroughly. He also encouraged group members to discuss possible solutions with trusted members within their separate departments. He even divided the group up into various sub-groups, to breakdown the group cohesion. Kennedy was also deliberately absent from the meetings, so as to avoid pressing his own opinion. We can only speculate what might have been, had groupthink shut down any rational problem solving within the US authorities during the Cuban missile crisis.

Avoiding groupthink with Assumption Based Communication Dynamics (The ABCD method)

Assumption Based Communication Dynamics is a risk management technique originally developed in 1992 to address many of the problems encountered with traditional risk management techniques. There are several methods to tackle groupthink, group consensus and defective group decision making in general, including:

  • Interviews — Interviews are a better way of dealing with issues and capturing risks than workshops. Group discussions allow certain individuals to dominate a discussion, while the others remain quiet. Interviews on the other hand, make sure all voices are heard equally. They are much more efficient than workshops for risk identification. Interviews help describe how to support an individual to question or challenge decisions concerning them.
  • Assumptions — By focusing on positive assumptions rather than negative risks, all aspects of the enterprise are considered in a positive and systematic way, and openness is naturally encouraged. People are led to think about what needs to happen for success (i.e. the assumptions) rather than being forced to look for risks, which is psychologically unnatural.
  • Assumption ratings – ABCD operates on a “worst case wins” basis. Meaning the person who is most concerned controls the ratings even if they have isolated views. This forces people to communicate so that the minimum “Risk Plan” forces “optimists” to talk to “pessimists”. This will either resolve concerns or identify risks that the majority have missed.
  • Top-to-bottom integrity – With ABCD, the senior management can set the overall risk ratings (i.e. Criticality and Controllability) but they are not allowed to change assumption ratings or close risks/assumptions. Risks can only be closed when the assumption originator agrees to down-grade the ratings.

We will never know if the ABCD method would have prevented the Challenger space shuttle disaster. But the rigorous structure that ABCD imposes would certainly have made sure that all the assumptions were evaluated appropriately for risk before the launch was allowed to go ahead.

For more information on groupthink and its relation to risk management, contact us today.