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
of groupthinkgroup 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.
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The 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, 57:2, (1989), 250-260.
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