A Look at the Problems and Dangers of Group-Think

Group-think is a condition where a cohesive group of people come up with poorly considered courses of action and, as a result, make bad choices. A unit of people who have become afflicted with group-think are typically a group that is cohesive, tends to know one another well, is tight-knit and overall friendly with one another.

Knit Knit Knit
Credit: decomite on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Groups that become too tightly knit are vulnerable to being afflicted by group-think.

The term "group-think" dates to 1972 when Irving L. Janis, Yale psychologist,  first coined the term. In his research, he explained how a "group of intelligent people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer." 1

How Does Group-Think Occur?

This phenomenon is most likely to occur when people have worked closely together for long periods of time. Over the course of this time, they develop a similar manner of rationalization and thinking. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to bad decisions because of the complacent nature that tends to emerge in an affected group. Scenarios of how group-think can emerge in an organizational setting include:

  • People within the group may be afraid to speak up and "rock the boat".
  • Individuals are fearful of offending colleagues.
  • Many people have become complacent within the group setting.
  • People may have made some excellent decisions in the past and are over-confident they have sound solutions and continue to use them even though circumstances have changed and these past solutions are no longer effective.

When new circumstances arise, groups affected by group-think may have a tendency to think within the box, and do not take the opportunity to explore the diverse options located outside of that box. In a nutshell, they seldom, if ever, venture beyond their comfort zone. These groups tend to ignore alternatives and react negatively to the ideas of other people not a part of the group. They may have the attitude of "this is the way we do things" or it's how the system works." (I've seen the latter countless times - people blaming the "system" rather than recognizing people make decisions - not the system itself).

Think outside the box
Credit: Bruce Krasting (Bruce'sArtCollection on Flickr)/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Group-think prevents individuals from thinking outside the box at times it is necessary.

Janis indicated ways to spot group-think include: Collective rationalization, feelings of peer pressure, levels of complacency, members of the group believing they have the "moral high ground", stereotyping, censorship of one's opinion and an "illusion of unanimity." 2

An afflicted group's optimism and belief they are correct in judgment often lead to a spiraling downfall.

Group-Think and U.S. History

Many documented historical events have been attributed to group-think.  A few oft-cited examples of group-think in the United States are the Bay of Pigs invasion, NASA's decision to launch the Challenger Space Shuttle when it was known there was something wrong with one of one of the rings, and some of President Johnson and his administration's decisions made during the Vietnam War.  I remember reading a study a few years back the Pearl Harbor attack could have potentially been stopped as the information suggesting an attack was there, but leadership was complacent about this data thinking an attack impossible. In more recent decades, President George W. Bush and his administration, along with Congress, have also been questioned as being affected by group-think and, more recently, the Penn-State coverup involving Jerry Sandusky has also been linked to group-think. 4

These are just a few examples in U.S. history, but studies have suggested there are many examples of how decision makers, in what are now historical events across the globe, have been affected by the phenomenon of group-think. 

The effects of group-think in a government scenario is often serious as these poor decisions lead to bad policymaking, and cause a significant impact in the aftermath for the people affected by those laws and/or decisions. Even in a business or any other type of organizational setting, it is important to learn to recognize when group-think is present and subsequently take steps to avoid it. When allowed to perpetuate, decisions made in a group-think scenario could ultimately hurt both productivity and profitability.

Strategies to Break Group-Think

Group-think is a condition that is often difficult to break. While breaking group-think can pose some challenges, it is not impossible. There are several strategies that can be applied to deter the tendencies associated with group-think; avoiding its pitfalls. Using these strategies may help pull the group into a clearer, more refined and diverse way of thinking.

  • In group setting situations, the group should appoint an outside person to challenge the group into considering diversity in mindset.
  • Appoint a member to play devil's advocate to help steer the group into exploring alternative ideas.
  • Select a leader to try to keep an unbiased focus on the issue.
  • Encourage members to think critically and unbiased.
  • Promote willingness to express doubts in the decision-making process.
  • The organization should set up independent evaluation groups.

[More on How to Reduce the Negative Effects of Group-Think ]

Devil's Advocate
Credit: Eric E Castro (ecastro on Flickr)/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

In any organizational setting, it is always important to have someone willing to ask questions, play devil's advocate, and get the group thinking about all possible options and consequences of decisions being made.

One can only wonder how many unethical or flat-out bad decisions are made daily by governments, businesses and other organizations afflicted by group-think. In the last several years, the phenomenon of group-think has been added to curriculum, now being studied in academic settings, business and military schools, and other training industries.

These poorly made choices affect not only within an organization but the people outside of the organization that directly affected by bad organizational choices and/or policy decision-making.

In any organizational-type setting, it is important to recognize the signs of group-think and make an effort to diversify the team. Leadership who can effectively follow through on strategies to prevent the dangers of group-think have a higher ability to prevent group-think from impairing an otherwise sound decision-making process.

Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter
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Patricia H. Werhane, Wicklander Chair in Business Ethics and Director of the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University, explains group-think and gives a chilling example of the dangers of group-think.