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.
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.
Janis identified eight symptoms or traits of groupthink that caused flawed conclusions:
- Unquestioned beliefs – the group ignores the potential moral consequences of its decisions or actions.
- Rationalization – this prevents individuals from reconsidering their viewpoints which causes them to ignore any warning signs.
- Stereotyping – where members of the so-called “in-group” ostracize or stereotype those in the “out-group” who may oppose or challenge certain ideas.
- 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.
- Self-censorship – similarly, those who have doubts may avoid sharing them because they assume that the group knows best.
- “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.
- Illusions of invulnerability – where overly-optimistic group members behave in a way that is risky and unjustified.
- 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.
- 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.
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