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What Groupthink Isn't

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The term groupthink is tossed around fairly liberally in conversation and on the Web. But it's astonishing how often it's misused and misunderstood. Here are some examples.
Marching chickens, a metaphor for groupthink

Marching chickens, a metaphor for groupthink. This image was found using a Web search for images associated with "groupthink." As I interpret this image, it conveys the idea of unthinking unanimity. Unthinking unanimity can be a factor contributing to groupthink, but much more is required, and, of course, groupthink can be present without it. Many of the results of that image search, such as this one, emphasize only one of the elements of the groupthink pattern. These images are responsible, in part, for the widespread idea that manifestation of any single element associated with groupthink — most often, it seems, unthinking unanimity — is evidence of the presence of groupthink.

But groupthink is much more complex. One of the elements of the pattern is closed-mindedness — a general failure to seek additional intelligence or information from sources outside the group. Ironically, it is this failure that also contributes to the prevalence of the belief that groupthink is defined by a single element of the complex pattern Janis exposed. Image courtesy Northwestern University.

The term groupthink was coined in 1952 by Wiliam Whyte, and again, independently, in 1972 by Irving Janis. It denotes a particular kind of dysfunctional group decision-making, in which agreement becomes more highly valued than any realistic assessment of alternative courses of action. The phenomenon is complex, but briefly, groupthink is indicated by eight specific symptoms, which Janis categorized in three groups: overestimation of group power and morality, closed-mindedness, and pressures toward uniformity. You can find many reliable sources for further insight about groupthink. But my purpose here is to examine some of the commonly recited, but incorrect, definitions of the term.

Most of the misconceptions fail because they make "single-bullet" assumptions about groupthink. That is, they are of the form, "I observe behavior X, therefore groupthink is in effect." In each case, it's easy to construct a scenario that exhibits the observed behavior, but which doesn't necessarily imply groupthink. Here are three examples.

Unanimity of opinion isn't proof of groupthink
Unanimity is consistent with groupthink, because closed-mindedness and pressures toward uniformity clearly can lead to unanimity of opinion.
But unanimity doesn't imply groupthink. For example: if you ask a group's members if the Earth is round, most groups would unanimously agree that it is. But that agreement isn't a result of groupthink — it's founded on a shared acceptance of objective data. Unanimity alone isn't proof of groupthink.
When members support something because everyone else supports it, groupthink might not be the cause
It's true that in groupthink a member's perceptions of gathering consensus can cause that member to adopt the emerging opinion. But pressures to conform can be present even when groupthink is not. In groupthink, members actually internalize the group's views; mere compliance isn't enough.
For example, there's a cognitive bias known as conformity bias, which is the tendency of group members to adopt beliefs in conformance with what they perceive are the group's beliefs, with greater likelihood than they otherwise would. It's possible for that bias to affect some members, or even all members, in the absence of groupthink.
When members hold their disagreement to themselves because they fear being ostracized, groupthink might not be the cause
Although fear of the treatment of dissenters can indeed be present in groupthink, its presence isn't proof that groupthink is occurring.
Consider a Unanimity of opinion
isn't proof
of groupthink
group that has engaged in unethical behavior. Its members recognize that revealing the incident would have serious career consequences. All openly agree to keep the matter private, except for one, who keeps silent. One of the conspirators turns to the reluctant member and asks, "And do you agree?" Fearing ostracism, he replies, "Yes." Is this groupthink? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Much depends on what else is happening. What we know for certain is that intimidation is afoot. Fear of ostracism can be an enabler of groupthink; it isn't proof of groupthink.

Groupthink is a pattern. It has many components. The presence of any one of them suggests the possibility of groupthink, but in itself it is not proof of groupthink. Go to top  Top  Next issue: Constancy Assumptions  Next Issue
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Order from AmazonThe best source for more insight about groupthink is Irving Janis. See, for example, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Boston: Wadsworth, 1982. Order from Amazon.com

Another useful reference: Clark McCauley, "The Nature of Social Influence in Groupthink: Compliance and Internalization," in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v. 57:2, pp. 250-260, 1989.


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