Since a beginning of human history, people have made decisions in groups – (Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie, 2015)
How GROUPTHINK occur? Think about the last time you were part of a group, perhaps during a school project. Imagine that someone proposes an idea that you think is quite poor. However, everyone else in the group agrees with the person who suggested the idea and the group seem set on pursuing that course of action. Do you voice your dissent or do you just go along with the majority opinion?
In many cases, people end up engaging in groupthink when they fear that their objections might disrupt the harmony of the group or suspect that their ideas might cause other members to reject them.
WHO CREATED GROUPTHINK?
The term “Groupthink” was coined in 1972 by a social psychologist, Irving Janis, to learn how group decisions are made and how group decisions could be successful or a failure. He made his conclusions based on studies on American Soldier Project and U.S. foreign policy decisions, which included the
- Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of 1941
- The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961
- The beginning of Vietnam Wars (1964 to 1967).
He concluded that in all these events, the decisions were made through groupthink. The theory is not only applicable to political decisions but also in any other decision making and communication processes.
To understand the nature of decision making in small groups, Irving Janis in his book Victims of Groupthink (1972), explains what takes place in groups where group members are highly agreeable with one another.
Definition: A way of group deliberation that minimizes conflict and emphasizes the need for unanimity.
WHAT ARE THE 8 SYMPTOMS OF GROUPTHINK?
Janis identified eight different “symptoms” that indicate groupthink:
- Illusion of invulnerability – This is related to extremism which encourages people to take bigger risks.
- Collective rationalization – Thinking of one person as correct confidently reduces rational thinking of all.
- Belief in inherent morality – When people think they are doing something moral, they do not consider morality of the process as well as consequences.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Out-groups are viewed as enemies and their views are always taken as negative and are ignored.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – All members of a group have a feeling of group feeling. They think that if they put forward any views different from other members, it can cause conflicts.
- Self-censorship – People censor their own feelings and its communication to avoid conflicts and disagreements.
- Illusion of unanimity – Group members think that they believe in the same cause and therefore in all the decisions related to the cause, which builds a false sense of unanimity.
- Self-appointed ‘mind-guards’ – Mind guards itself from conflicting situations which makes people remain far from contradictory thoughts, actions and communications.
IS GROUPTHINK POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE?
Groupthink can have some benefits. When working with a large number of people, it often allows the group to make decisions, complete tasks, and finish projects quickly and efficiently.
However, this phenomenon also has costs as well. The suppression of individual opinions and creative thought can lead to poor decision-making and inefficient problem-solving.
- Negative outcomes are common by groupthink.
- Leaders get more power due to groupthink.
- Dissatisfaction occurs within groups due to failure.
- It discourages critical evaluation.
- It also does not promote people from taking initiatives.
- Ideas become stale by same kind of decisions.
- Risks are not thought about.
- Alternatives which can be better is ignored.
WHAT CAUSES GROUPTHINK?
Janis suggested that groupthink tends to be the most prevalent in conditions where there is a high degree of cohesiveness, situational factors that contribute to deferring to the group (such as external threats, moral problems, difficult decisions), and structural issues (such as impartial leadership and group isolation).
First: Group Cohesiveness
Cohesion differs from on group to another. Different level of cohesion produces different results. In some group, cohesion can lead to positive feelings about the group experience and the other group members.
Despite the apparent advantages, highly cohesive groups may also bring about a troubling occurrence. Cohesiveness is a necessary ingredient if groups or team to arrive at thoughtful, inclusive and informed decisions.
Two: Structural Factors
Janis noted that specific structural characteristics or faults promote groupthink:-
- Group Insulation
- Lack of Impartial Leadership
- Lack of Decision-Making Procedures
Three: Group Stress
HOW TO PREVENT GROUPTHINK?
To avoid Groupthink, it is important to have a process in place for checking the fundamental assumptions behind important decisions, for validating the decision-making process, and for evaluating the risks involved. It is important to explore objectives and alternatives, encourage challenging of ideas, have back –up plans, etc. If needed gather data and ideas from outside sources and evaluate them objectively.
There are steps that groups can take to minimize this problem. First, leaders can give group members the opportunity to express their own ideas or argue against ideas that have already been proposed. Breaking up members into smaller independent teams can also be helpful.
According to Janis, decision-making groups are not necessarily destined to groupthink. He devised ways of preventing groupthink:
- Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
- Leaders should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
- Leaders should absent themselves from many of the group meetings to avoid excessively influencing the outcome.
- The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
- All effective alternatives should be examined.
- Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
- The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
- At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.
By following these guidelines, groupthink can be avoided.
Tools That Help You Avoid Groupthink
- Brainstorming – Helps ideas flow freely without criticism.
- Six Thinking Hats – Helps the team look at a problem from many different perspectives, allowing people to play “Devil’s Advocate”.
- Risk Analysis – Ensures that the consequences of a decision are thoroughly explored.
- Impact Analysis – Helps people check and validate the individual steps of a decision-making process.
HOW TO OVERCOME GROUPTHINK?
However, if Groupthink does set in, it’s important that you recognize and acknowledge it quickly, so that you can overcome it and quickly get back to functioning effectively.
Follow these steps to do this:
- Even with good group decision-making processes in place, be on the lookout for signs of Groupthink, so you can deal with them swiftly.
- If there are signs of Groupthink, discuss these in the group. Once acknowledged, the group as a whole can consciously free up its decision making.
- Assess the immediate risks of any decision, and the consequences for the group and its customers. If risks are high (for example risk of personal safety), make sure you take steps to fully validate any decision before it is ratified.
- If appropriate, seek external validation, get more information from outside, and test assumptions. Use the bullets above as a starting point in diagnosing things that needs to change.
- Introduce formal group techniques and decision-making tools, such as the ones listed above, to avoid Groupthink in the future.
EXAMPLE OF GROUPTHINK THEORY – THE BAY OF PIGS INVASION FIASCO
Janis had studied the Bay of Pigs Invasion fiasco of 1961 before making the theory of group think.
The Bay of Pigs invasion failed, according to Janis, due to the Kennedy government making a group decision to support the exiled Cuban political party led by Fidel Castro, which was overthrown in 1960, to invade Cuba again with the help of CIA.
The invasion failed ultimately. Kennedy had decided on that because of his group of advisor’s who did not advice anything against his wrong decisions as Kennedy was making good decisions on other things related to the U.S. government. Kennedy had asked the advisors to vote for or against the decision.
All the group members believed in Kennedy’s decision and did not use their own rationality even though the invasion did not have any probability of success.
The same thing happens in all small situations like a group of students deciding on an academic group project, a team of football players during a match, a board of directors of a company deciding on the future of company, etc. When people do not communicate what they have to for betterment of anything, the communication fails and group cohesiveness might also not remain intact.
EXAMPLE OF GROUP THEORY – JAPANESE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is a prime example of groupthink.
A number of factors such as shared illusions and rationalizations contributed to the lack of precaution taken by U.S. Navy officers based in Hawaii. The United States had intercepted Japanese messages and they discovered that Japan was arming itself for an offensive attack somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
Washington took action by warning officers stationed at Pearl Harbor, but their warning was not taken seriously. They assumed that the Empire of Japan was taking measures in the event that their embassies and consulates in enemy territories were usurped.
The U.S. Navy and Army in Pearl Harbor also shared rationalizations about why an attack was unlikely. Some of them included
- “The Japanese would never dare attempt a full-scale surprise assault against Hawaii because they would realize that it would precipitate an all-out war, which the United States would surely win.”
- “The Pacific Fleet concentrated at Pearl Harbor was a major deterrent against air or naval attack.”
- “Even if the Japanese were foolhardy to send their carriers to attack us [the United States], we could certainly detect and destroy them in plenty of time.”
- “No warships anchored in the shallow water of Pearl Harbor could ever be sunk by torpedo bombs launched from enemy aircraft.”
Groupthink can severely undermine the value of a group’s work and, at its worst, it can cost people their lives.
On a lesser scale, it can stifle teamwork, and leave all but the most vocal team members disillusioned and dissatisfied. If you’re on a team that makes a decision you don’t really support but you feel you can’t say or do anything about it, your enthusiasm will quickly fade.
Teams are capable of being much more effective than individuals but, when Groupthink sets in, the opposite can be true. By creating a healthy group-working environment, you can help ensure that the group makes good decisions, and manages any associated risks appropriately.