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What Everyone Ought To Know About Group Think

By Edited Apr 5, 2016 3 13

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 on the 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 leads 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 the 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 policy making, 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. If group-think is allowed to perpetuate, these decisions 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 mind-set.
  • 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
Amazon Price: $27.00 $13.70 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 5, 2016)

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.



Mar 1, 2015 8:40am
This article goes toward why I choose never to work in groups on work or scjool projects and have managed to mostly avoid it most of my life. A group is never as creative as its most creative member and there are usually enough dumbasses in any given group to insure what comes forth is anywhere from the middle of the Bell curve to its bottom end. Good piece. Thumb.
Mar 2, 2015 3:06am
I'd not quite looked at it that way :). But ya, I've had some poor experiences (esp in those school projects you mentioned...I am so glad never to have to do one of those again!)
My last working group experience was pretty good though, even though the members were all comfortable, it was in a good way because most of the members were willing to speak up or look at things differently. I learned a lot.

Thanks so much Vic for your comment and the thumb, appreciated.
Mar 2, 2015 7:38am
I think only a handful of rock bands have managed to defy the norm, and became greater than the sum of their parts.
Mar 1, 2015 8:54am
Very informative. The Nazi clerck must have been "employee of the month" quite often in his time packing people in train cars to their death. Thank you for this article. Thumb up!
Mar 2, 2015 3:14am
Thanks very much Maria, appreciate your comment. Amazing how someone could think like this and still say he was doing a "good job". Thanks also for the thumb!
Mar 2, 2015 8:01am
Very interesting article. I believe group think can also be tied to "mean girl" syndrome, aka, relational aggression. No one wants to rock the boat, even though internally they know it is wrong...or else they are swept away and agree with the group or the Alpha girl they fear.
Mar 3, 2015 3:31am
That's an excellent point, I had not thought of it in this situation. As you said, are they "swept away" and caught up in thinking this is truly the "right" way to act? If this is the reason, I could see group-think applying. Thank you for commenting (you should consider writing an article on this someday!)
Mar 3, 2015 4:52am
Actually, I have! Thanks for the vote of confidence!
Mar 4, 2015 2:46am
Is it here on IB? (I was looking yesterday)
Mar 4, 2015 3:04am
No, I have an article in draft...sorry I was not more clear.
Mar 4, 2015 3:21am
Oh, I misunderstood :). I look forward to reading it!
Mar 2, 2015 10:29am
Great article, Leigh. In one of my former lives I worked with a lot of committees (as a minute writer) and witnessed lots of really dumb decisions made by some really bright people.
Mar 3, 2015 3:39am
Thanks so much Lesley. I would imagine it is hard to watch dumb decisions actually being implemented time and time again. In some of my past jobs, there was so much bureaucracy involved, it was frustrating sometimes to watch.
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  1. Kathrin Lassila "A brief history of groupthink." Yale Alumni Magazine. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  2. "Avoiding Groupthink." Mind Tools. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  3. Ben Dattner Ph.D "Preventing "Groupthink"." Psychology Today. 20/04/2011. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  4. "Penn State Cover-Up: Groupthink in Action." TIME. 17/07/2012. 26/02/2015 <Web >

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