Groupthink is a type of thinking when members of a group accept the group consensus uncritically. It can lead to disastrous conclusions because moral and logical thinking is suspended.
Group members often take the group’s competence and unity for granted, thereby failing to use their own individual thought. Alternatively, they might not want to avoid punishments associated with expressing dissent.
Groupthink might lead groups to reach more extreme or wrong decisions that only some members genuinely support.
Groupthink Definition and Theoretical Origins
The term “groupthink” was coined in 1952 by William Whyte to describe the perils of “rationalized conformity”.
However, American psychologist Irving Janis introduced the comprehensive theory of groupthink in 1972.
It emerged from his effort to understand why knowledgeable political groups often made disastrous decisions (especially in foreign policy). Janis defined groupthink as:
“…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.” (1972, p. 9)
Essentially, a lack of conflict or opposing viewpoints leads to poor decisions. The group doesn’t fully analyse possible alternatives, gather external information, or seek external advice to make an informed decision.
Groupthink then has negative effects. It marks “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from ingroup pressures” (Janis, 1972, p. 9).
Key Characteristics of Groupthink
According to Janis, the key characteristics of groupthink are:
- The illusion that a group is invulnerable, fully competent, and coherent
- The rationalization of collective decisions
- An unquestioned belief in the group’s integrity,
- Stereotyping group adversaries or outsiders,
- The existence of “mindguards” blocking alternative information and options,
10 Groupthink Examples
- American officials did not anticipate or adequately prepare for the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. They ignored external information that the Japanese were planning an attack, thinking they would never dare to fight the American “superpower”.
- The escalation of the Vietnam War in the 1960s resulted from the U.S. government’s feelings of invincibility, underestimating the opponent’s abilities, and ignoring opposing viewpoints.
- The Challenger disaster. In 1986, miscalculations regarding the launch of the Challenger shuttle claimed the lives of 7 people. Space shuttle engineers knew about the shuttle’s faulty parts but they did not block the launch because of public pressure.
- The Bay of Pigs invasion. Suffering from the illusion of invulnerability and based on faulty assumptions the Kennedy administration launched an unsuccessful attack against Cuba.
- A homogenous (yet experienced) team of American decisionmakers decided to go to war in Iraq. Their illusion of invulnerability and moral righteousness led them to disregard intelligence information about weapons of mass destruction.
- Employees not speaking up in a work meeting because they don’t want to seem unsupportive of their team’s efforts.
- Students not opposing to a strict professor’s views or behavior because they’re concerned about how this might affect their grades.
- A political organization has a firm ideological agenda. Their sources of information are limited to those aligned with their ideology. This group might come to distrust and even inflict violence on outgroup members with different political views.
- Members of a close-knit group might ignore or underestimate information that challenges their decisions. They might try to shut down any group member who brings a different perspective.
- Launching an offensive advertising campaign for a consumer product because employees don’t articulate their dissent. They were worried about how this could impact their career. However, their view could save the company/organization from making a mistake.
1. The Challenger disaster
In the 1980s, NASA earlier debuted a space shuttle program that would be accessible to the public. They have even planned for more than 50 affordable flights a year.
The first shuttle, name Challenger was planned to take off in January 1986. Space shuttle engineers knew about certain faulty parts before the take-off.
And yet, they did not block the launch because of public pressure to proceed. In its effort to avoid negative press, NASA’s Challenger mission claimed seven lives—while the nation was watching.
2. The Bay of Pigs invasion
A famous example of Groupthink is the ultimately unsuccessful attack against Cuba in 1961.
The J. F. Kennedy administration launched the attack by accepting negative stereotypes about the Cubans and Fidel Castro’s incompetence (Janis, 1972). They did not question whether the Central Intelligence Agency information was accurate.
Beyond stereotyping, Kennedy’s administration thought itself untouchable. Although the plans to invade the Bay of Pigs had leaked out, they carried on ignoring the adverse warning signs (Janis, 1972).
Also, individual members, like Secretary of State Dean Rusk, did not voice their contrary opinion in group discussions.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion showcases three characteristics of groupthink: (i) the illusion of invulnerability, (ii) stereotyping of the opponent and (iii) self-censorship.
3. The bombing of Pearl Harbour
Another real-life scenario of groupthink discussed by Janis is the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Japanese messages had been intercepted. And yet, many senior officials at Pearl Harbor did not pay attention to the warnings from Washington DC about a potential Japanese attack.
They didn’t act or prepare because they rationalised that the Japanese wouldn’t never attempt such an invasion. They were sure that the Japanese would see the “obvious” futility of entering a war with the US.
Thus, they failed to prepare for the bombing of Pearl Harbour, which claimed many lives.
The symptoms of groupthink are: (i) stereotyping the adversary’s ineptitude, (ii) illusions of invincibility leading to excessive risk taking (Janis, 1972),.
4. The escalation of the Vietnam War
The escalation of the Vietnam War was also studied by Janis as a manifestation of dysfunctional group dynamics.
First, U.S. government officials during the war considered themselves untouchable despite having suffered multiple failures and financial/human losses. They ignored the dangers and negative feedback, blindly trusting the military advantage of the U.S.
They also stereotyped their enemies, deeming them unable to make correct decisions.
President Johnson felt that the U.S. was leading a “just war”, defending its ally, South Vietnam, from the Soviet threat. They saw the escalation of war as morally correct.
The ultimate purpose was to show to the rest of the world the unanimity of the Americans in fighting again Communist expansionism.
5. An offensive marketing campaign
A modern example of Groupthink is a politically incorrect marketing campaign, imagine a company seeking to launch a new marketing campaign for a consumer product. Other team members appear excited about and pleased with the campaign, but you have some concerns. You feel it might be offensive to some demographic groups.
You don’t speak up because you like your colleagues and want to avoid putting them in an awkward position by challenging their idea. You also want your team to succeed. Anyway no one seems to consider other possible marketing plans, while the dynamic team leader firmly pushes for this campaign.
At that point, you choose to go along with the group and start doubting that your idea is correct. This fictional example illustrates key symptoms of groupthink: (i) group cohesion, (ii) self–censorship, (ii) the “mindguard” (team leader) banning alternative opinions.
Causes of Groupthink
It should be clear from the above that the main causes of groupthink are:
- Highly cohesive and/or non-diverse groups
- An influential leader who feels “infallible” and suppresses dissenting information
- Decision-making under stress or time constraints
- Non-consideration of outside perspectives
- Efforts to maintain/boost group members’ self-confidence
Criticisms of Groupthink Theory
Despite the significant uptake of Janis’ Groupthink model in the social sciences, many scholars have criticized its validity (Kramer, 1998). Scholars have found that decision-making processes only sometimes define ultimate outcomes.
Not all poor group decisions result from groupthink. Similarly, not all cases of groupthink result in failures or ‘fiascoes’ to use Janis’ wording. In some cases, scholars have found that being in a cohesive group can be effective; it can boost members’ self-esteem and speed up decision-making (Fuller & Aldag, 1998).
Indeed, previous research has challenged Janis’ model. However, groupthink has been very influential in understanding group dynamics and poor decision-making processes in a much broader range of settings than initially imagined (Forsyth, 1990).
Groupthink is a process in which the motivation for consensus in a group causes poor decisions—made by knowledgeable people.
Instead of expressing dissent and risking losing a sense of group unity, members stay silent. They subscribe to views/decisions they disagree with. Therefore, groupthink prioritizes group harmony over independent judgment and might rationalize immoral actions.
Although groupthink often leads to bad (even unethical) decisions, group leaders should try avoid groupthink by creating diverse and inclusive groups, enabling members to voice their views without fear, and considering opposing views seriously.
Forsyth, D. (1990). Group dynamics (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, Calif: Brooks/Cole.
Fuller S.R, & Aldag R.J. (1998). Organizational Tonypandy: Lessons from a Quarter Century of the Groupthink Phenomenon. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(23), 163-184.
Janis, I. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (2nd ed.). Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin.
Kramer, R. M. (1998). Revisiting the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam Decisions 25 Years Later: How Well Has the Groupthink Hypothesis Stood the Test of Time?. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2-3), pp. 236-271.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.