Groupthink – a monument to truthiness?

Ramon J. Aldag re-examines a familiar concept.

Psychological concepts often seep into the public consciousness. Through salient examples, powerful metaphors, or compelling arguments, some gain general – if tentative – acceptance. Others are widely embraced but remain subject to continued critical inspection. Relatively few gain the status of received wisdom – the enshrined. Groupthink has become one of the most remarkably successful of the enshrined. But is its respect deserved?

Introduced by Irving Janis in a 1971 Psychology Today article, groupthink has been presented as established fact rather than theory in textbooks, classrooms, and the popular press. It has been blamed for everything from the Salem witch trials to the Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal, from the Challenger space shuttle disaster to the US invasion of Iraq. Over just the last several years, groupthink has been invoked to explain such dark topics as the ethics of torture (Kleinberg, 2016), terrorist radicalisation (Tsintadze-Maas & Maas, 2014), human trafficking (Cheshire, 2017), the dynamics of gangs (Caya, 2015), modern rape culture (Hermann, 2014), ‘Cancel Culture’ (Wood, 2020), the ‘conspiracy’ promoting climate science (Orient, 2019), and Brexit (Forsberg, 2019). Most recently, Dominic Cummings used the term 15 times in his evidence at the Houses of Commons in relation to the UK government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Writing in The Guardian, social psychologists Stephen Reicher and John Drury argued that blaming groupthink for Covid mistakes was obscuring the real reasons why bad decisions were made.

Indeed, groupthink bears similarities to ‘el chupacabras’ (the goatsucker) of recent lore in the western hemisphere, invoked as the malevolent culprit behind everything from the death of livestock to crop failures to vicious attacks on humans, to, a wife claimed, bite marks on her neck. As Sally Fuller and I wrote more than two decades ago, ‘…groupthink has come to symbolize all that is bad about group decision making, and flawed decisions are quickly dissected for signs of groupthink. Despite a quarter century virtually devoid of support for the phenomenon, groupthink refuses to die and, indeed, continues to thrive’ (Fuller & Aldag, 1998, p.165).

What is groupthink?

Irving Janis proposed that highly cohesive groups are likely to suffer from groupthink, a strong concurrence-seeking tendency that suppresses critical inquiry and results in faulty decision making processes and flawed outcomes (Janis, 1971, 1982, 1989). He chose the term groupthink because of its frankly Orwellian connotation, like ‘doublethink’ and ‘crimethink’. Janis gave as examples of groupthink such major historical fiascoes as the lack of preparedness for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the escalation of war in Korea, the failed US-sponsored landing of anti-Castro rebels in the Bay of Pigs, and escalation of US involvement in the war in Vietnam. Following its Psychology Today introduction and expansion in Janis’s later books, the groupthink phenomenon quickly gained remarkably broad and firm acceptance, dominating the literature on group decision-making for decades.

Janis reasoned that dealing with vital, affect-laden issues such as war results in ‘hot’ cognitions, in contrast to the ‘cold’ cognitions of routine problem solving. Situations triggering ‘hot’ cognitions induce stress, resulting in defensive avoidance, characterised by lack of vigilant search, distortion of the meanings of warning messages, selective inattention and forgetting, and rationalising.

Whatever the level of empirical support for the overall groupthink model, Janis offered a clear set of prescriptions that, when appropriately applied, may facilitate successful group functioning in stressful situations. While these prescriptions had previously been offered in a more scattered fashion, they were nevertheless persuasive in Janis’s concise, coherent, and compelling presentation. At a time of great turbulence and concern about blind obedience to authority, Janis starkly envisioned a dark force draining individuality and fostering mindless collective thinking. 

Antecedents and consequences

Janis presented three categories of antecedents to groupthink. First, moderate to high group cohesion is a necessary but not sufficient condition for groupthink. Structural faults and a provocative situational context are secondary antecedents. The structural fault category includes insulation of the group, lack of impartial leadership, lack of norms requiring methodical procedures, and homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideologies. The provocative situational context antecedents focus on the role of stress. These include external threats of losses combined with a low hope of finding a better solution than that of the leader. Internal stress stems from temporary low self-esteem attributable to members’ recent failures, and perceptions that the task is too difficult to accomplish and there is no morally correct alternative.

Janis viewed the antecedents as leading to symptoms of groupthink, including an illusion of invulnerability, rationalisation to discount warnings and other negative feedback, belief in the inherent morality of the group, stereotyped views of members of opposing groups, pressure on dissenters, self-censorship, an illusion of unanimity, and self-appointed ‘mindguards’ acting to shield the group from adverse information. 

Janis saw groupthink as resulting in consequences that interfere with effective group decision-making. For instance, the group limits its discussion to only a few alternatives. After a course of action is initially selected, members ignore new information concerning its risks and drawbacks. They also avoid information concerning the benefits of rejected alternatives. Members make little attempt to use experts. And, because they are so confident that things will turn out well, they fail to consider what may go wrong and, as such, do not develop contingency plans. Janis saw these ‘defects’ as leading to poor decision quality.

Janis relied on case studies, with their opportunities for rich description, rather than other methodologies. It is important to recognise that Janis did not write about experimental or survey research. He apparently considered these to be rather sterile and artificial.

Are we clear on ‘groupthink’?

Sally Fuller and I wrote more than 20 years ago that at least four views on the meaning of groupthink have emerged:

 - Groupthink is overreliance on concurrence seeking. In fact, though, recognition of the dangers of such overreliance predated groupthink. For example, Richard Schanck wrote almost 90 years ago of ‘pluralistic ignorance’, in which each group member who disagrees with the preferred solution believes that he or she is alone in that view and, therefore, remains mute. Similarly, Solomon Asch (1956) conducted experiments dramatically demonstrating the power of conformity pressures, even in the face of obvious facts. As such, this view grants groupthink no unique contribution. 

 - Groupthink is a complete sequence of clusters of dysfunctional characteristics which result in flawed decision-making. This was the perspective that Janis adopted. He wrote: ‘It does not suffice to see if a few of the eight tell-tale symptoms of groupthink can be detected. Rather, it is necessary to see if practically all the symptoms were manifested and to see if the antecedent conditions and the expected immediate consequences – the symptoms of defective decision-making – are also present.’ (Janis, 1989, p.60).

 - Groupthink is an undesirable constellation of characteristics resulting from highly cohesive groups. There is again simply no empirical support for this perspective. To the contrary, there is no evidence either that the purported characteristics of groupthink ‘hang together’ as a group or that (as I discuss a bit later) these characteristics are most evident in highly cohesive groups. 

 - Groupthink is any set of group processes that are antecedent to poor decision outcomes. This essentially tautological view sees groupthink as all the bad things that precede poor outcomes. As such, any poor group outcome must be due to groupthink.

What about the application of groupthink we’ve seen, to such a wide range of organisational, military, personal, and other situations? Janis made no such claim for his ideas. Instead, as evidenced by his arguments and examples, he saw groupthink as primarily applicable to extremely stressful, ‘hot’ situations, where severe threats and, often, time constraints, preclude rational, vigilant thinking. Janis did not see moving beyond such conditions as within the scope of groupthink. And as noted earlier, Janis did not argue that groupthink is evident when even a few of its proposed symptoms or defects can be isolated, only when all are present.

The evidence base

It is remarkable that so few studies have directly assessed the groupthink model. Neck and Moorhead (1985) wrote of groupthink that, ‘(c)onsidering the popularity of the concept, the scarcity of research examining its propositions is startling’ (p.538). Marlene Turner and Anthony Pratkanis (1998) wrote on the 25th anniversary of groupthink that, ‘This divorcing of belief and scientific evaluation has unequivocal negative consequences for both consumers of research and its practitioners. The unconditional acceptance of the groupthink phenomenon without due regard for the body of scientific evidence surrounding it leads to unthinking conformity to a theoretical standpoint that may be invalid for the majority of circumstances. This is turn leads to a spiral of ignorance and superstition that is not easily circumvented. How incongruous that the concept warning us of the dangers of overconformity becomes a victim of that conformity’ (pp.112-113).

If anything, the dearth of research has since become more apparent. Ironically, this may be due in part to groupthink’s enshrined status. That is, any research supportive of groupthink is likely to be met with a ‘we already knew that’ shrug.  Conversely, findings contradicting the groupthink model are likely to be dismissed as heresy, generally defined as ‘opinions held in opposition to commonly received doctrine, and tending to promote division or dissension’. People strongly resent and resist ‘heretical’ views, however valid.

Let’s take an example. In 2000, Won-Woo Park – who is in fact one of the more critical of the groupthink researchers – tested 23 predictions of the groupthink model using an experimental design with participants playing roles in a decision-making scenario. He found only two of 23 hypothesised relationships to be significant and supportive of groupthink. The remaining 21 did not support groupthink. Remarkably, seven of the hypothesised relationships were significant and opposite the predictions of groupthink. Rather than present such results as damning of groupthink, Park interpreted them as evidence that Janis’s predictions were ‘only partially correct’.

All in all, nothing has changed the conclusion I reached with Sally Fuller on the 25th anniversary of groupthink (Fuller & Aldag, 1998, p.165): that groupthink’s vitality comes not from empirical evidence, conceptual development, or demonstrated value added, but from a remarkable combination of faith, subjective perception, and retrospective sensemaking. Supporters have added, deleted, twisted, and transformed groupthink rather than abandon it. To keep it alive, if only in name, they have tied it to a Procrustean bed, stretching and cutting as needed to force a fit, with little thought to the nature of the surviving entity.

Why won’t it die?

The almost universal acceptance of groupthink across contexts, decades, and outlets is not, I would argue, compelling evidence of its validity. The almost unquestioning acceptance of groupthink in the face of consistently negative research findings is baffling, yet some potential explanations can be offered. 

First, it’s a really good story. The examples given as evidence of groupthink are vivid, straightforward, and engrossing. For instance, the Challenger space shuttle disaster is frequently presented as a classic example of groupthink. It is noteworthy, though, that dissent and alternative generation, diminishing self-censorship and enhancing member satisfaction and self-efficacy, and reducing turnover. Groupthink researchers simply haven’t been able to demonstrate its dangers. To the contrary, Moorhead and Montovani wrote of their research that, ‘the empirically derived model suggests that several linkages were opposite those predicted by the Janis framework’ (1986, p.408). For instance, cohesion had a negative impact on self-censorship, a positive impact on dissent, and a negative impact on the defect termed ‘few alternatives’. Such findings and others led an earlier groupthink researcher, Matie Flowers, to state more than 40 years ago that, ‘a revision of Janis’s theory may be justified, one which would eliminate cohesiveness as a critical variable’ (1977, p.895). This is, of course, diametrically opposed to Janis’s view that high cohesiveness and its accompanying concurrence-seeking tendency are necessary, central features of groupthink.

So, what are we left with, in terms of leadership guidelines for effective group functioning? Well, there are valuable insights, if not entirely original, but only if properly applied in appropriate contexts. It may apply, for example, if the group is facing a very high stress, ‘hot’ decision situation; Janis stated that invoking groupthink in other contexts is simply inappropriate. Also, it may be appropriate to follow Janis’s prescriptions only if the group is in an early stage of group development; members of mature groups (in the performing stage) have developed norms and are secure enough in their roles and status to challenge one another and have developed ways of reaching agreement (Leana, 1985). The broader organisational culture is also important: an oasis of open questioning in an organisational desert where dissent is generally stifled will quickly dry up.  Further, groupthink prescriptions strictly apply only when outcome quality is tantamount. Decision implementation and commitment to the decision, ongoing motivation of the group and leader, future use of the group, affective responses, and other outcomes, while often critical, are relatively unimportant in the groupthink model.

Truthiness… and lemmings

Flawed theories sometimes lead to useful outcomes. In a sense, Janis’s influence is like that of Frederick Herzberg’s 1966 two-factor theory of motivation.  While the theory is now discredited, Herzberg’s key argument – that intrinsic motivation is more important than was generally recognised – was a significant catalyst of the job enrichment and worker empowerment movements. Similarly, whatever its flaws, groupthink has raised general awareness of potential group dysfunctions and generated interest in minimising them. If, as is often the case, people use the term groupthink to simply mean overreliance on concurrence seeking, that’s fine; they just need to recognise that evidence of such overreliance predates groupthink and does not validate the entire Janis model.

Late-night television host Steven Colbert spoke passionately, and often humorously, about what he termed ‘truthiness’ (the 2005 American Dialect Society and 2006 Merriam-Webster word of the year). Colbert coined truthiness to satirise the misuse of appeal to emotion and ‘gut feeling’ as a rhetorical device in recent socio-political discourse. In this age, filled with ‘alternative facts’, the Oxford Dictionary announced ‘post-truth’ as its 2016 word of the year (McIntyre, 2018). Desire for truthiness rather than truth permitted Diederik Stapel, a prominent Dutch social psychologist, to perpetrate an audacious academic fraud (see, for instance, Vogel (2011). He had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive, that the world wanted to hear about human nature. ‘It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty – instead of the truth,’ he said.

Groupthink oozes truthiness. It is a familiar, comfortable, flexible, and rather formless sweater. Why toss it aside?

Because, while it’s important we welcome new theories and frameworks and learn all we can from them, we should not follow them blindly, especially when they seem intuitively appealing and are enthusiastically and uncritically embraced. Let me return to the theory for an illustration of this. Do victims of groupthink often display lemming-like behaviour, blindly moving toward collective disaster? Yes, but only in popular storytelling. In fact, groupthink and lemming stories share some myth-like characteristics. The lemming legends are simply false. They were popularised by a staged 1958 Disney documentary (White Wilderness) which purported to show lemmings with a powerful compulsion to commit mass suicide, leaping to their deaths into the ocean. This was all faked; the lemmings were imported to the area, herded toward the sea, and physically catapulted into the water. Despite video and other documentation of that fabrication, the lemming saga survives, apparently like myths – things that never were, but always are – and beyond convincing refutation.

- Ramon J. Aldag is Skillrud Family Chair in Business at the Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Madison. [email protected]

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