groupthink

What is Groupthink?

Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.

Understanding groupthink

The phenomenon, where groups arrive at a consensus that is either problematic or premature, may be driven by a particular agenda or by those who value collaboration and conflict avoidance over critical thinking

Groupthink was popularized by psychologist Irving Janis in a 1971 issue of Psychology Today who also performed much of the initial research on the phenomenon.

However, it is believed the term itself was coined in 1952 by urbanist and sociologist William H. Whyte Jr. who was inspired by similar concepts in George Orwell’s 1949 book Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Groupthink characteristics

Janis identified eight symptoms or traits of groupthink that caused flawed conclusions:

  1. Unquestioned beliefs – the group ignores the potential moral consequences of its decisions or actions.
  2. Rationalization – this prevents individuals from reconsidering their viewpoints which causes them to ignore any warning signs.
  3. Stereotyping – where members of the so-called “in-group” ostracize or stereotype those in the “out-group” who may oppose or challenge certain ideas.
  4. Illusions of unanimity – a belief held by superiors that every member of the group is in agreement. When it appears that everyone feels the same way, it is much harder for one individual to voice their concern.
  5. Self-censorship – similarly, those who have doubts may avoid sharing them because they assume that the group knows best.
  6. “Mindguards” – these are self-appointed individuals who ensure that contrarian viewpoints are not discussed by other group members. They may dismiss important information that contradicts popular opinion to maintain group self-esteem.
  7. Illusions of invulnerability – where overly-optimistic group members behave in a way that is risky and unjustified.
  8. Direct pressure – those who do have the courage to offer a contrarian view are pressured to conform and may be considered traitorous or disloyal if they do not.

The impact of groupthink 

The desire for team harmony and conflict avoidance is a cognitive bias that stifles creativity and individuality within a group.

In the pursuit of consensus, optimal solutions are overlooked and potential problems are underestimated.

Groupthink is toxic to organizations because it creates an undesirable corporate culture where employees with “popular” viewpoints are pitted against those who hold less popular opinions.

Groupthink also causes organizations to lose the benefits of diverse experiences and perspectives.

These are both key drivers of robust decision-making and problem-solving that considers all possible alternatives.

In contexts such as politics or the military, the consequences of groupthink are far greater. The phenomenon may lead to decisions that ignore ethical or moral dilemmas and instead focus on objectives with potential for significant collateral damage.

Key takeaways:

  • Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.
  • Eight symptoms or traits of groupthink cause flawed conclusions: unquestioned beliefs, rationalization, stereotyping, illusions of unanimity, self-censorship, “mindguards”, illusions of invulnerability, and direct pressure.
  • In the workplace, groupthink stifles individual creativity, creates a toxic corporate culture, and stifles the organization’s ability to make robust decisions or solve problems. 

Connected Business Concepts

Heuristics

heuristic
As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

bounded-rationality
Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

second-order-thinking
Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

lateral-thinking
Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

moonshot-thinking
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.

Biases

biases
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

dunning-kruger-effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

occams-razor
Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

mandela-effect
The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

crowding-out-effect
The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

bandwagon-effect
The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: HeuristicsBiases.

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