Introduction

Have you ever heard of a group of people who made a decision that had dire consequences and you could only mutter this phrase in shock? What in the world were they thinking?

Or have you ever been part of a group where rash decisions are made? In such scenarios, you wonder why everyone is going along, and no one is speaking up. Well, you might have had your first dose of a phenomenon known as Groupthink.

This phenomenon occurs when a group of people make decisions without any iota of critical reasoning, considering the better alternatives, or considering the consequences of their decisions. It is usually driven by the desire not to upset the balance of a group of people. Where Groupthink prevails, people will set aside their belief of what is right or just and just follow the crowd. An example of Groupthink is mob action or jungle justice. 

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Definition and Origins of Groupthink

Psychologist Irving Janis first used groupthink in the 1970s. It can be defined as the propensity of a group of intelligent individuals to suppress their brain and any sense of logic and prioritize acceptance of the popular opinion in order not to create disharmony. It usually happens when members of a group want to avoid conflict and maintain unanimity members of a group just go with the flow to avoid conflict.

 Janis highlighted some key factors that encourage or promote groupthink and they are; group cohesion, insulation from outside perspectives, directive leadership, and high-stress situations. These factors enable an environment where insightful decisions are made from a critical evaluation of facts without considering better alternatives or options. 

Real-world Examples

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster: The Challenger disaster happened on 28, 1986,  January when the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger crashed  73 seconds into its flight, causing the deaths of all seven crew members. The shocking tragedy shocked the world and led to a reevaluation of NASA’s safety protocols. Here it was discovered that there were flaws in the decision-making process and the risks were evident but the team made the flight all the same.

The 2003 Invasion of Iraq:

In  2003  Iraq was invaded based on the belief that there had weapons of mass destruction. However, after the invasion and great destruction, no weapons were uncovered. This invasion had significant consequences on the Middle East and global politics

Characteristics of Groupthink

Groupthink has features like thinking the group can’t fail, ignoring problems, and pressuring everyone to agree. Members might not say what they think to avoid problems, and they might believe everyone in the group agrees, even if they don’t.

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Symptoms and Indicators:

When groupthink is happening people feel pressured to agree and not voice out their real feelings. According to psychologist Janis, there are 6 traits or indicators of groupthink.

The eight traits of groupthink, according to Janis, are:

  • Illusions of unanimity: Here the decision makers believe that no one has a dissenting opinion and act or make decisions that show or depict their illusion of unanimity.
  • Unquestioned beliefs: Here members of the group have unquestioned faith in the decisions taken by their leaders and refuse to acknowledge the potential consequences.
  • Rationalization: Group members ignore clear and rational indicators and warning signs.
  • Stereotyping of contrary viewpoints; Here the lack of objectivity amongst the group members makes other members keep their opinions to themselves and they do not question or challenge the group’s ideas.
  • Mindguards: These are group members who act as the devil’s advocate and prevent the circulation of contrary viewpoints by either keeping information that would cause dissension or stopping other members from expressing contrary views.
  • Illusions of invulnerability: Here members of the group are made to believe that they are infallible, and above the law, This leads group members to engage in unjustified risky behaviors with an overly optimistic hope of success.
  • Direct Pressure: This is the outright silencing of group members who may raise uncomfortable questions. They are made to feel that their questions or contrary views are signs of disloyalty.

In summary, group members ignore the clear probability of negative outcomes and are unduly convinced of the success of their ideas or decisions/actions.

Group Dynamics at Play:

Close-knit groups or groups with strong leaders are most likely to possess groupthink, especially if members of the group do not consider the opinions of others. A classical example is Adolf Hitler and his attempt to create blue-blooded Germans & annihilate the Jews. This caused the death of more than 5 million Jews in Germany.

Sometimes stressful situations can also cause groupthink. You find this in instances where a group of people all unanimously decide to commit group suicide, this idea may have been muted by a strong member of the group, and the members follow along. In certain instances, cultural beliefs come into play and you have scenarios like honor killing, where the head of a home the father convinces mother and son to be part of killing their children/sibling because they broke a family tradition. In some instances, the influence the leader of the family holds is so strong that even if any of them believe that it’s a wrong decision they are “compelled” to go ahead either as a result of fear that a worse fate will befall them if they don’t play along. 

Group dynamics play a vital role in groupthink. Factors such as leadership style,  group cohesion, and external pressures can influence the likelihood of groupthink occurring.

Group Cohesion: Highly cohesive groups, where members are closely bonded either by family ties, or culture. religion, and or share similar values, are more vulnerable to groupthink. The desire to not rock the boat usually overrides logical reasoning and dissenting opinions.

Leadership Style: Authoritarian leaders like the Adolf Hitler example which suppressed and punished independent thinking foster an environment where conforming is valued over objective reasoning. 

External Pressures: External pressures, fuelled by the desire to maintain a particular status can facilitate groupthink and people’s value of public perception at the expense of risk analysis and critical evaluation.

Consequences of Groupthink:

Groupthink is a negative phenomenon and dire consequences are sully the outcomes of Groupthink. This is so because this concept does not consider options, ignores risks and the consequences have always been fatal with far-reaching consequences that sometimes last a lifetime. A classical example is the Hiroshima and Nagasaki experience where the fear of China winning the war led the US to deploy atomic bombs which affected the formation of fetuses in the womb decades after the war was over. 

Case Studies

After the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, investigators discovered that a series of poor decisions led to the deaths of seven astronauts. The day before the launch, engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company that built the solid rocket boosters, had warned flight managers at NASA that the O-ring seals on the booster rockets would fail in the freezing temperatures forecast for that morning. The O-rings were not designed for anything below 53 degrees Fahrenheit.3

NASA personnel overrode the scientific facts presented by the engineers who were experts in their fields and fell victim to groupthink. When flight readiness reviewers received the go-ahead for launch from lower-level NASA managers, no mention was made of Morton Thiokol’s objections. The shuttle launched as scheduled, but the result was disastrous. Other events that may be possible groupthink-involved failures include the Bay of Pigs invasion, Watergate, and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Preventing and Mitigating Groupthink 

Strategies for Effective Decision-Making

Step 1: The first step to avoiding Groupthink is to allow everyone to express their opinion, listen to different ideas, and critically evaluate decisions before reaching a consensus.

Step 2:Breaking members into smaller groups can encourage independent thinking. Another technique that works is allowing others to express their opinions first before a leader tables their opinion or viewpoint. 

Step 3: To avoid groupthink, groups should listen to different ideas, let people say what they think, and think about other options. Leaders should set an example by being open-minded, and groups can use tools to help them make decisions. There are steps that groups can take to minimize this problem. First, leaders can allow group members to express their ideas or argue against ideas that have already been proposed.

Step 4:Setting out clear metrics standards that allow us to evaluate decisions before it is passed also helps. Ensuring that each time a decision is made it adheres to the following parameters.

  • Respect for all that lives
  • All lives matter
  • Protect Vulnerable members of the society
  • Doesn’t impoverish one to enrich another

Step 5: Consider having an external party or non-member of your group evaluate your decisions. The advantage of this is their neutrality since they are not part of your group. So they aren’t prone to the thinking pattern or type of rationalizations amongst your group members.

This list is endless however these are some ideas that would help you nip Groupthink in the bud even before it takes root.

Lastly having a diverse Group mix with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences brings different perspectives, information, and ideas to the table. This makes it less likely that groups will fall into groupthink patterns

Conclusion

 

Groupthink is when people accept the same idea without evaluating the decision along the lines of logical reasoning, most times in a bid to show solidarity and respect to leaders. It silences dissenting voices and gives no room form for critical reasoning.

The implication of this is that wrong ideas can become policies that can affect the well-being of places, or people concerned. To avoid Groupthink it is important to ensure that everyone has a say and that every idea is evaluated along the lines of certain standard values that protect the lives and property of every one especially vulnerable groups or communities. 

 


  • Angela Kayode-Sanni
  • on 8 min read

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