What Is Groupthink?

Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of individuals reaches a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the consequences or alternatives. Groupthink is based on a common desire not to upset the balance of a group of people. This desire creates a dynamic within a group whereby creativity and individuality tend to be stifled in order to avoid conflict.

Groupthink Explained

In a business setting, groupthink can cause employees and supervisors to overlook potential problems in the pursuit of consensus thinking. Because individual critical thinking is de-emphasized or frowned upon, employees may self-censor and not suggest alternatives for fear of upsetting the status quo.

A Brief History of the Groupthink Concept

Yale University social psychologist Irving Janis coined the term groupthink in 1972. Janis theorized that groups of intelligent people sometimes make the worst possible decisions based on several factors. For example, the members of a group might all have similar backgrounds that could insulate them from the opinions of outside groups.

Some organizations have no clear rules upon which to make decisions. Groupthink occurs when a party ignores logical alternatives and makes irrational decisions.

Fast Fact

Groupthink is not always problematic. In the best cases, it allows a group to make decisions, complete tasks, and finish projects quickly and efficiently. In the worst cases, it leads to poor decision-making and inefficient problem-solving.

Traits of Groupthink

Janis identified eight signs, symptoms, or traits of groupthink, all of which lead to flawed conclusions. In summary, the group may have an illusion of invincibility and consider that nothing the group decides to do can go wrong.

Collectively, the group rationalizes away any possible negative outcomes. Members are convinced their cause is right and just; they thus ignore any moral quandaries of their decisions. The group body tends to ignore the suggestions of anyone outside the group.

Any dissenters in the group are pressured to come around to the consensus. After the pressure is exerted, members censor themselves to prevent further shunning. Once decisions are made, the group assumes them to be unanimous.

Some members of a group may act as a mindguard; these sentinels prevent any contrary advice from reaching the leaders of the organization. With groupthink, a time constraint exacerbates all of these issues, and any decisions that need to be made fast may not undergo due diligence. Unfortunately, all of these groupthink traits can lead to disaster.

Groupthink is a dynamic that can lead to bad decisions and even disasters; it is a phenomenon in which a group of individuals considers that they are infallible.

Special Considerations

A Case Study

After the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, investigators discovered that a series of poor decisions led to the deaths of seven astronauts. The day before the launch, engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company that built the solid rocket boosters, had warned flight managers at NASA that the O-ring seals on the booster rockets would fail in the freezing temperatures forecast for that morning. The O-rings were not designed for anything below 53 degrees Fahrenheit.

Key Takeaways

  • Groupthink is a phenomenon in which individuals overlook potential problems in the pursuit of consensus thinking.
  • Any dissenters in the group who may attempt to introduce a rational argument are pressured to come around to the consensus and may even be censored.
  • The Challenger shuttle disaster, the Bay of Pigs, Watergate, and the Vietnam War are all considered possible consequences of groupthink.

NASA personnel overrode the scientific facts presented by the engineers who were experts in their fields and fell victim to groupthink. When flight readiness reviewers received the go-ahead for launch from lower-level NASA managers, no mention was made of Morton Thiokol's objections. The shuttle launched as scheduled, but the result was disastrous. Other events that could be considered groupthink failures include the Bay of Pigs invasion, Watergate, and the escalation of the Vietnam War.