DEFINITION of Groupthink

Groupthink is a phenomenon developed in groups marked by the consensus of opinion without critical reasoning or evaluation of consequences or alternatives. Groupthink evolves around a common desire not to upset the balance of a group of people. This leads a group of people to stifle and avoid conflict, creativity, and individuality, and to engage in potentially harmful traits.

BREAKING DOWN Groupthink

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 themselves and not bring up alternatives or risks for fear of upsetting the status quo.

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. Members 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.

Eight Traits of Groupthink

Janis identified eight signs, symptoms or traits of groupthink, all of which lead to flawed conclusions. The faction may have an illusion of invincibility, as if nothing the group does can go wrong. Collectively, everyone rationalizes away any possible negative outcomes. Members think their cause is right and just; therefore, they can ignore any moral quandaries of their decisions. The body tends to ignore the suggestions of anyone outside of the group.

People put pressure on dissenters to come around to their way of thinking. 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. A time constraint exacerbates all of these issues with a groupthink mentality; any decisions that need to be made fast may not undergo due diligence. Unfortunately, all of these traits of groupthink can lead to disaster.

Case Study

After the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, it was found 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, 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.

NASA personnel overrode the scientific facts presented by the engineers who were experts in their fields. 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 end 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.