The Situationist

History of Groupthink

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 21, 2008

Janis Groupthink CoverThe January/February issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine contains a fascinating history of Irving Janis’s famous insight about the process he coined as “groupthink,” which Janis defined as the “mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” That history is then followed by four very brief essays by academics describing the relevance of Janis’s work for issues and research today: (1) “Avoiding Enrons”Getting off the Bus to Abilene.” We’ve included a few pieces of that history and the second of the four essays (written by Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo).

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Thirty-five years ago, Yale psychologist Irving Janis published an essay in the Yale Alumni Magazine explaining how a group of intelligent people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer. He called his radical new theory “groupthink”; it changed the way we think about decision making. . . . Janis’s essay is still the alumni magazine’s most requested reprint. His book on the subject went into a second edition that is still in print as a college textbook. (Janis died in 1990.)

Janis came up with the idea of groupthink during a Yale seminar on the psychology of small groups. His reading about the Bay of Pigs fiasco had led him to wonder how intelligent people like John F. Kennedy and his advisers could have been “taken in by such a stupid, patchwork plan as the one presented to them by the CIA representatives.” During his seminar, he found himself suggesting that what had happened in the White House might be similar to what happened among ordinary citizens in the groups he studied for his research: they often developed a “pattern of concurrence-seeking . . . when a ‘we’ feeling of solidarity is running high.”

To investigate further, Janis studied several policy fiascoes, including the Bay of Pigs, the failure to protect Pearl Harbor, and the escalation of the Vietnam War. In each case, the participants “adhered to group norms and pressures toward uniformity, even when their policy was working badly and had unintended consequences that disturbed the conscience of the members,” he wrote. “Members consider loyalty to the group the highest form of morality.”

Participants in those critical decisions, Janis found, had failed to consider the full range of alternatives or consult experts who could offer different perspectives. They rejected outside information and opinion unless it supported their preferred policy. And the harsher the preferred policy — the more likely it was to involve moral dilemma — the more zealously members clung to their consensus: “Each member is likely to become more dependent than ever on the in-group for maintaining his self-image as a decent human being and will therefore be more strongly motivated to maintain group unity.”

Janis suggested several steps for preventing groupthink, though he cautioned that they were hypothetical. His recommendations include careful impartiality on the part of the leader as to what decision the group should make; formation of competing teams to study the same problem; and giving “high priority to airing objections and doubts.”

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“The secret power of leaders,”

Within most academic fields, the ideas that are perpetuated are ideas that can be turned into PhD dissertations by graduate students. Groupthink is complex enough that it was never hot in that sense. Nobody today says, My area is groupthink. But what emerged subsequent to groupthink was an area called “judgment and decision making,” which is one of the most important areas in all of psychology. In fact Danny Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize based on his research into howwoodward-state-of-denial.jpg rational people make irrational decisions.

Groupthink also preceded the development of an area called political psychology. Janis’s work, plus the work of many others, has led many psychologists to say that what’s really important is applying psychology to the political domain — understanding ideology, understanding how political leaders work and why constituents follow as they do.

Janis showed that members of a group who are smart and rational and well trained may make irrational decisions because they look only for evidence that will confirm their stated objectives, their stated goals. And the key is whether the leader makes his position clear in advance of the group’s deliberations. Not sufficiently emphasized in reviews of groupthink is that it revealed the secret power of leaders to influence group decision making by simply having their values or perspective become known. Groupthink becomes worse when the leader creates the concept that everybody has to be a team player. History will record that nobody has done this more than George W. Bush.

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To read the entire article, click here. For a sample of previous Situationist posts discussing group decision-making, see “The Situation of Group Membership,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part IV and Part V,” and “Some Situational Sources and Consequences of Diversity.”

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2 Responses to “History of Groupthink”

  1. shiva kumar said

    what claims or comments have different writers made about the theory in terms of its usefulness and application

  2. bosskitty said

    As a retired government employee, I have experienced the Groupthink syndrome and the “Power of leaders” in meetings. These precursors to failures should be emphasized at all management training seminars.

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