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The science behind groupthink

If you want to mitigate groupthink, first you need to understand what it is. Read this article to find out more about the groupthink theory.

Groupthink is defined as:

‘the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, resulting typically in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making’
Irving Janis, a Yale psychologist, coined the term in 1972 to explain the leaders’ terrible decisions in the face of contrary evidence. Janis also wanted to discover if everyday groups tend towards social cohesion and agreement too. [1]
History is replete with examples of terrible situations caused by leaders’ failures to act in enlightened self-interest. Instead, leaders often decisions that are obviously counter-productive.

Historical examples of groupthink

Psychologists first explored examples like the American failure in Vietnam, the Kennedy administration’s decision to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and the Watergate cover-up. [2]
A more modern example includes the European Banking Authority’s failure to predict the financial collapse of the Spanish banking industry.
After the 2008 banking crisis, the European Union created the EBA to enhance control over financial markets in the EU. In 2011, the EBA had conducted a stress-test of Spanish banks, concluding that they were under control.
The following year, the Spanish banking industry collapsed. Possibly this failure to recognise issues in the sector rose from the EBA’s unwillingness to criticise the Spanish banking system for fear that Spanish leaders would return the favour. [3]
Janis did not believe that stupidity, malice, or evil were to blame for these bad decisions.
Instead, Irving examined whether these acts of apparent stupidity were the products of various microstates of emotion and biological and chemical interactions that encourage a tendency towards social cohesion.
One of the key characteristics is that members of groups will often attempt to remain loyal to the group by sticking with the policies to which the group has already committed itself.
They continue with these policies even when they work out badly and have unintended consequences that disturb the conscience of each member. [1]

Janis’ eight symptoms of groupthink

Illusion of invulnerability: Group members create excessive optimism and encourage taking extreme risks.
Inherent morality of the group: Group ignores ethical and moral consequences of their decision.
Collective rationalisation: Rationalisation discounts warning signs or other information that may lead the group to reconsider their decision.
Stereotyping of out-groups: Extreme cynicism by in-group members negates the capabilities and competence of the opposing group.
Self-censorship: Avoidance of one’s opinion to minimise deviation from group consensus.
Shared illusion of unanimity: Group members who remain silent agree.
Pressure to conform: Group members pressure dissenters by making it clear that divergent views are not welcome.
Mindguards: A group member acts as an information filter to control the decision-making process towards a specific and limited number of alternatives. [4]

We’ll come back to each of these symptoms later in the course.

Groupthink is relevant to situations large and small

From the previous examples, groupthink may appear to be relevant only on a large scale, but that’s just not true.

Groupthink affects the underlying culture of entire companies and industries.

Groupthink contributes to both faulty research practices and our ability to spot cultural appropriation in our work.

One of the easiest ways to avoid groupthink is to increase the diversity of our hiring practices.

That brings us back around to that initial definition of ‘diversity’. We’re not really talking about diversity; we’re talking about accuracy.

Companies can mitigate, or potentially avoid, the symptoms of groupthink, simply by increasing the proportional accuracy of their employees’ representation of the overall population.

As Dr Claudia Plaisted writes in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, the most important reason organisations should promote diversity is not morality. It’s because a diverse group of people brings diverse ways of thinking about things. [5]

In that journal article, Dr Plaisted offers seven steps to create thought diversity and avoid groupthink. We will also explore these proposed steps towards the end of the course.

References

  1. Janis, I., 1952. Groupthink. [online] Web.archive.org. Available at: Web Archive [Accessed 13 September 2021].
  2. Whyte, G., 1989. Groupthink Reconsidered. The Academy of Management Review, [online] 14(1), p.40. Available at: JSTOR
  3. Teleki, B., 2019. From the Sanhedrin to Foreign Currency Loans in Hungary : Cases of Group­think from His­tory. Polgári szemle, [online] 15(Special Issue), pp.463-472. Available at: REAL
  4. Reaves, J., 2018. A Study of Groupthink in Project Teams. Ph.D Management. Walden University College of Management and Technology.
  5. Fernandez, C., 2007. Creating Thought Diversity. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, [online] 13(6), pp.670-671. Available at: Lippincott
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