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10.02 - GroupThink

'How could we have been so stupid?' asked President John F. Kennedy, after he and a group of close advisers had blundered into the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Stupidity was certainly not the explanation. The group who made the decision was one of the greatest collections of intellectual talent in the history of American government; Irving Janis describes the blunder as a result of 'Groupthink',

Groupthink occurs when too high a price is placed on the harmony and morale of the group, so that loyalty to the group's previous policies or to group consensus overrides the conscience of each member. Concurrence seeking drives out the realistic appraisal of alternatives. No bickering or conflict is allowed to spoil the cozy 'we-feeling' of the group, Thus it is that even the cleverest, most high-minded and well-intentioned of people can get into a blind spot, Janis identifies eight symptoms:

1InvulnerabilityCohesive groups become over-optimistic and can take extra ordinary risks without realizing the dangers, mainly because there is no discordant warning voice.
2RationalityCohesive groups are quick to find rationalizations to explain away evidence that does not fit their policies.
3MoralityThere is a tendency to be blind to the moral or ethical implications of a policy. ‘How could so many good men be wicked?' is the feeling.
4StereotypesVictims of groupthink quickly get into the habit of stereotyping their enemies or other people and do not notice discordant evidence.
5PressureIf anyone starts to voice doubts the group exerts subtle pressures to keep him quiet: he is allowed to express doubts but not to press them.
6Self-censorshipMembers of the group are careful not to discuss their feelings or their doubts outside the group, in order not to disturb the group coziness.
7UnanimityUnanimity is important so, once a decision has been reached any divergent views are carefully screened out in people’s minds.
8Mind guardsVictims of Groupthink set themselves up as bodyguards to the decision. “He needs all the support we can give him.” The doctrine of collective responsibility is invoked to stifle dissents outside the group.

The result of group-think is that the group looks at too few alternatives, is insensitive to the risks in its favourite strategy, finds it hard to re-think a strategy that is failing and becomes very selective in the sort of facts it sees and asks for.

Groupthink is unfortunately most rife at the top and centre of organizations where the need for keeping things close seems more important. Such groups must actively encourage self-criticism, the search for more alternatives, the introduction of outside ideas and evaluation wherever possible and a positive response to conflicting evidence. One way of avoiding groupthink in the boardroom is the growing use of non-executive directors, for small groups can get too cohesive to be effective.

Kennedy learned his lesson. The Missile Crisis was handled differently, with a more diffuse group, more outside ideas, more testing of alternatives and more sensitivity to conflicting data.

I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink. 1972

Further Reading