Groupthink. By: Kretchmar, Jennifer, Research Starters: Sociology (Online Edition), 2015
The sociological theory known as groupthink was first developed by Irving Janis in 1972. Groupthink became popular almost instantly, because of its applicability to a wide variety of academic disciplines and everyday problems in politics and business. Despite its popularity however, researchers have had difficulty empirically verifying the theory. Thus, in addition to reviewing the specifics of Janis’s original model, and a sample of the ways in which it has been used, the arguments of its critics will be reviewed. Most critics propose reformulations of Janis’s theory, although some suggest it should be abandoned altogether.
Keywords Antecedents; Consensus-seeking; Decision Making; Group Cohesion; Groupthink; Janis, Irving; Symptoms
First introduced in 1972 by Irving Janis, groupthink is a theory that attempts to explain why groups sometimes make poor decisions. Janis was particularly interested in the practical applications of his work; indeed, much of his theory was derived from case studies of political advisory groups for four different US presidents. The immediate relevance of his theory made it an instant success and just three years after the idea was introduced, the term groupthink appeared in Webster’s Dictionary, defined as “conformity to group values and ethics” (Turner & Pratkanis, 1998). Janis (1972), however, defined it a little more broadly, as, “a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (p. 9).
At first, the theory had great impact. As McCauley (1998) states, “The success of the groupthink model is a phenomenon worth attention in its own right” (p. 157). But what makes the success of groupthink different from the success of any other sociological theory? It is precisely because groupthink achieved this success despite a lack of evidence in support of the theory. As Paulus (1998) states, “The instant and continuing popularity of groupthink in the social psychology and organizational textbooks is a bit surprising given the relatively weak empirical basis [upon which it rests]” (p. 364). Turner and Pratkanis (1998) are a little more direct in arguing that no research has supported Janis’s original hypothesized model.
As a result, many sociologists have spent as much time attempting to explain the success of Janis’s theory as they have investigating the theory itself. Paulus (1998) points to the simplicity of the theory, as well as Janis’s promotional efforts —its original publication in Psychology Today and the subsequent release of a film—as explanations for its widespread appeal. McCauley (1998) explains its success by describing three characteristics of the scholarly and popular audience. First and foremost, McCauley (1998) argues, groupthink satisfied the audience’s hunger for applied research. Indeed, Janis’s own interest in application is evident in his introduction to Victims of Groupthink. He states, “How can groupthink be prevented? In the nuclear age, perhaps all of us might justifiably feel slightly less insecure if definitive answers to this could be quickly pinned down and applied” (Janis, 1972, p. vi). Janis even left his position at Yale so that he could give his full attention to research that might help prevent nuclear war (Janis, 1986). In addition to appealing to an audience’s thirst for applied research, groupthink also served two other ends after it was first introduced. It allowed people to evaluate poor decisions without placing blame on any single individual, and it helped maintain peoples’ belief in the democratic ideal that group decisions should be better than individual ones (McCauley, 1998).
Whatever the reason for the popularity of groupthink, it is difficult to overlook the inherent irony in the widespread acceptance of the theory in the absence of evidence. Groupthink is a theory purporting the dangers of consensus-seeking in the absence of evidence, and yet it seems to have become a victim of the very thing it warns against. As Turner and Pratkanis (1998) conclude, “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 in turn leads to a spiral of ignorance and superstition that is not easily circumvented” (p. 133).
It is arguably as important to understand the way in which groupthink theory was developed as it is to understand the theory itself. Janis’ interest in the idea was piqued when reading about policy decisions made by advisory groups to American presidents. Janis (1972) states, “The main theme of this book occurred to me while reading Arthur M. Schlesinger’s chapters on the Bay of Pigs in A Thousand Days. How could bright, shrewd men like John F. Kennedy and his advisers be taken in by the CIA’s stupid, patchwork plan? I began to wonder whether some kind of psychological contagion…had interfered with their mental alertness” (p. iii). As a result, Janis chose to develop his theory by analyzing four policy decisions that resulted in what he referred to as “fiascos.” The four case studies included:
• Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 decision to focus on training rather than defense of Pearl Harbor, despite warnings of a possible surprise attack;
• President Truman’s 1950 decision to escalate the Korean War;
• President Kennedy’s 1960 decision to invade Cuba and,
• President Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War.
Later, Janis added President Nixon’s decision to cover up the Watergate break-in as a fifth example of groupthink; he eventually concluded that Watergate provided his best example of the phenomenon (Esser, 1998). In addition to analyzing policy decisions ending in fiascos, Janis also conducted case studies of two successful group decision-making processes—the Marshall Plan to avert economic collapse in post-war Europe and the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (Esser, 1998). Although Janis acknowledged that additional research would be needed, these case studies provided the foundation for his theory.
From these six case studies, Janis developed a tri-partite model of the groupthink phenomenon. Specifically, he identified five antecedent conditions to groupthink, eight symptoms of groupthink, and seven symptoms of defective decision making (Janis & Mann, 1977). The antecedent conditions and symptoms increase the likelihood, he argued, of a poor decision outcome. He acknowledged, however, that the link between symptoms of groupthink and poor decision outcomes is imperfect, and that successful outcomes can sometimes result from defective decisions (Janis, 1972).
Janis (1977) defined the antecedent conditions of groupthink as characteristics of the group that foster a consensus-seeking tendency. These conditions are:
• Group cohesiveness;
• Insulation of the group, especially from expert opinion;
• Directive leadership;
• Lack of methodical search and appraisal of information; and
• High stress accompanied by little hope of finding a solution other than one offered by leadership.
Of all the antecedent conditions in his model, Janis (1972) emphasized group cohesiveness most. He described it as the “central theme of my analysis” and wrote, “the more amiability and esprit de corps among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups” (p. 13).
Symptoms of Groupthink
The consensus-seeking tendency resulting from the antecedent conditions led to what Janis referred to as the symptoms of groupthink. Although Janis derived his theory from case study, he attempted to define the elements of his model in a way that would allow for more empirical study. He wrote, “In order to test generalizations about the conditions that increase the chance of groupthink, we must operationalize the concept of groupthink by describing the symptoms to which it refers. Eight main symptoms run through the case studies of historic fiascoes” (Janis, 1972, p. 197). The symptoms listed below are summarized from his original discussion
• An illusion of invulernability that increases optimism and risk-taking;
• Excessive and collective rationalization;
• Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group;
• Stereotypical views of out-group members;
• Discouragement of dissent among group members;
• Self-censorship by individual group members;
• Illusion of unanimity; and,
• The use of mind guards, or individuals who protect the group from information that might threaten their shared complacency (Janis, 1972; Janis & Mann, 1977).
Symptoms of Defective Decision Making
According to Janis (1972), symptoms of defective decision making are more likely to occur in the presence of the antecedent conditions and symptoms of groupthink. Importantly, however, the relationship is not a deterministic one. He says of group cohesion, for example, “a high degree of ‘amiability and esprit de corps among the members’ does not invariably lead to symptoms of groupthink [and defective decision making]. It may be a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition” (Janis, 1972, p. 199). The seven characteristics of defective decision making likely to result from antecedent conditions like cohesion and insulation are:
• Incomplete survey of alternative decisions;
• Incomplete survey of objectives;
• Failure to examine risks of preferred choice;
• Poor information search;
• Selective bias in the processing of information;
• Failure to reappraise alternatives; and
• Failure to consider contingency plans (Janis & Mann, 1977, p. 132).
One final element of Janis’s original model should be mentioned, although its addition has confused critics and advocates alike (McCauley, 1998). As a last step in his theory building exercise, Janis (1972) attempted to tie groupthink back to a well-known psychological concept, that of self-esteem. He wrote, “concurrence-seeking and the various symptoms of groupthink to which it gives rise can be best understood as a mutual effort among the members of a group to maintain self-esteem” (Janis, 1972, p. 203). The greater the threats to self-esteem, he argues, the greater the tendency to seek consensus at the expense of critical thinking. Even Janis (1972) acknowledges that linking groupthink to self-esteem is a “huge inferential leap” that needs to be verified later by “systematic research” (p. 206)
Janis’s theory of groupthink became popular almost instantly. Its popularity, however, was not limited to small circles of academics—social psychologists, for example—as many scholarly theories are. Rather, the popularity of groupthink was widespread, breaking traditional boundaries between disciplines. Turner and Pratkanis (1998) explain,
The range of the groupthink theory is breathtaking. [It] is one of the few social science models that has had a truly interdisciplinary impact. Even a cursory scan of the literatures in political science, communications, organizational theory, social psychology, management, strategy, counseling, decision science, computer science, information technology, engineering management, health care, and marketing reveals the pervasive appeal and influence of groupthink (Turner & Pratkanis, 1998, p. 106).
A comprehensive and detailed review of the many ways in which groupthink has been applied is beyond the scope of this article, but a sampling is provided below.
Political Decision Making
First and foremost, Janis (1972) had politics in mind when he developed his theory of groupthink, and thus it is toward an understanding of political decision making that the theory has most often been applied. In addition to the six cases Janis originally analyzed—Bay of Pigs, Pearl Harbor, North Korea, Vietnam, the Marshall Plan, and the Cuban Missile Crisis—groupthink theory has been extended to Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, and the attempted military rescue of hostages from Iran. Janis (1982) identified several other political decisions he suspected of groupthink, some of which involved countries other than the United States. These included President Reagan’s decision to cut Social Security benefits, President Ford’s decision to rescue a ship captured by Cambodians, and Britain’s response to Nazi Germany during WWII. Many of these cases have been analyzed more than once since Janis first published groupthink theory. Kramer (1998), for example, revisits the Bay of Pigs decision in light of new evidence and concludes, “group members’ strivings to maintain group cohesiveness were not a prominent a causal factor in the deliberation process as Janis argued” (p. 236). Kramer (1998) blames Kennedy’s preoccupation with the political consequences of his decision instead.
Small Group Decision Making
Groupthink has also been used to analyze decision outcomes that have consequences for far fewer people than those made by US presidents, but are nonetheless equally surprising, arguably even bizarre. Turner and Pratkanis (1998) for example, apply groupthink theory to help explain the actions of a 1950s religious sect, the first of many such groups to arise in the late twentieth century. Its leader, Marion Keech, convinced a group of twenty-five followers that she had received messages from planet Clarion, informing her of the earth’s imminent destruction. Group members quit their jobs, gave away possessions, and insulated themselves from the rest of society. When the world did not end as they predicted, the group advertised themselves as the world’s saviors. Turner and Pratkanis (1998) argue that the group displayed many antecedent conditions of groupthink: directive leadership, insulation from the outside world, stereotypes of out-groups, self-censorship, and mind guarding, as well as symptoms of groupthink and defective decision making—poor information search, illusions of unanimity, collective rationalization, and failure to examine risks.
Business Decision Making
Groupthink has also been applied to the business world. It has been used to explain Ford Motor Company’s decision to produce and market the Edsel, as well as the suspicious business practices of companies like Beech-Nut and E.F. Hutton. In addition to its use in explaining business failures, groupthink has also been utilized for training purposes. Groupthink videos and questionnaires, both designed for use in business management, were best sellers in the 1990s (Esser, 1998). Paulus (1998) even suggests that the corporate world is partly to blame for the widespread acceptance of groupthink in the absence of evidence. He wrote, “If [social scientists] do not maintain significantly higher standards than the self-promoting management gurus, the credibility of our field will suffer greatly” (p. 371). He, like others, emphasizes the need for further research, so that groupthink does not become “a convenient label with little explanatory or predictive value” (Esser, 1998, p. 126).
Empirical verification of groupthink theory has been a difficult task, and one that few have been willing to attempt. In 1998, twenty-five years after its original publication, only a Handful—as few as eleven, by some count—empirical studies had been conducted (Esser, 1998). Turner and Pratkanis (1998) argue that laboratory verification of Janis’s theory is difficult because of the number of dependent and independent variables in the model, and because of the theoretical ambiguities. Furthermore, despite Janis’s attempts to clearly define the variables of his model, Turner and Pratkanis (1998) conclude that “researchers have little (or even conflicting) guidance from the theory about how to either operationalize experimental variables or code archival data” (p. 108).
There are not only challenges in conducting groupthink research, but challenges in the interpretation of results as well. Specifically, some argue that the theory is validated only in the presence of evidence for the full model—that is, when all antecedent conditions are present. This strict interpretation is rejected by those who favor an additive interpretation, arguing that groupthink becomes more prominent as the number of antecedent conditions increases (Esser, 1998; Turner & Pratkanis, 1998). Because no evidence has been found for either the strict or additive model, others propose a particularistic interpretation, suggesting that groupthink outcomes depend on the particular combination of antecedents. Paulus (1998) especially is critical of those who suggest the theory is “right” only if the full model can be validated. He states, “that would seem to be a rather stringent criterion for any theory. I have never heard of a theory that did not require modification subsequent to its presentation. Theories are temporary guides to understanding reality on the way to truth” (Paulus, 1998, p. 366).
Effect of Group Dynamics
Despite disagreement about how best to conduct and interpret groupthink research, one finding emerged with some consistency in a literature review of groupthink research in the late 1990s. Specifically, the literature review showed that neither case study analyses nor laboratory studies confirmed the link between group cohesion and concurrence-seeking tendency (Esser, 1998). Some argue, however, that Janis defined cohesion incorrectly. Rather than defining it in terms of mutual attraction of group members, Turner and Pratkanis (1998) define cohesion in terms of social identity, and the collective attempt of the group to maintain a positive group image. They argue that the tendency toward consensus-seeking can be reduced by eliminating the need for the group to engage in identity protection; by giving groups a potential excuse for poor performance—or face-saving mechanism—the group is more likely to entertain alternative decisions. Others have found it more fruitful to define cohesiveness in terms of loyalty to leadership (Esser, 1998). Park (2000) confirms the relationship between group cohesiveness and symptoms of groupthink, although how cohesiveness is defined is unclear.
In general, research on groupthink has “produced as many questions (and methodological issues) as answers” (Esser, 1998, p. 135). McCauley (1989, as cited in Esser, 1998), for example, questions Janis’s conceptualization of consensus-seeking behavior as internalization, or private acceptance of the group decision. McCauley’s (1989) analysis of six groupthink cases revealed that in at least two cases, consensus was achieved through compliance, or public agreement with the group decision in the absence of private acceptance. Such distinctions could have important implications for groupthink theory. Similarly, ‘t Hart (1990, as cited in Esser, 1998) and colleagues have attempted to differentiate groupthink driven by a pessimistic view of the likely outcome and groupthink driven by an overly optimistic view. In the former, holding each member accountable for the group decision could help offset groupthink, whereas it is likely to have little effect if the group is driven by optimism. Finally, literature reviews of groupthink research suggest the need for methodological innovations, especially with regard to laboratory research. Because most symptoms of groupthink represent private feelings—feelings of invulnerability, morality, etc.—questionnaires designed to assess groupthink should ask subjects to evaluate themselves, not members of the entire group (Esser, 1998). Most studies ask subjects to assess all members of the group, putting them in a position of a less reliable outside observer.
Although most research is driven by the goal of modifying or extending Janis’s original theory of groupthink, there are some who feel it should be abandoned altogether. Fuller and Aldag (1998) argue that “continued attention to groupthink is unfortunate and misguided” (p. 163). The popularity of groupthink, they believe, has directed researcher’s attention away from the more general, and more promising, decision-making literature. Furthermore, groupthink is not simply an example of a failed theory, but rather an example of blind acceptance and “retrospective sensemaking” (Fuller & Aldag, 1998, p. 165). For these authors, groupthink has become an urban legend, instead of a sociological theory with any explanatory value. The majority, however, agree with Esser (1998), who concludes “it is too early to attempt to pass judgment on groupthink theory. Much more research is needed before we can determine whether the theory is valid, whether modifications of the theory are needed, or whether the theory should be discarded altogether” (p. 139). Since Esser’s conclusion, groupthink theory has remained alive and well, albeit with continuous reexamination and the creation of alternate models of groupthink, such as Robert Baron’s ubiquity model (2005).
Terms & Concepts
Antecedents: According to Janis’s original 1972, there are five antecedent conditions that increase the likelihood of consensus-seeking behavior in groups. Janis thought group cohesion is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for groupthink.
Consensus-seeking: Groupthink occurs when members of a group seek unanimity or consensus without “realistically appraising alternative courses of action” (Janis, 1972, p. 9). In other words, members of a group come to agreement on a decision or course of action without carefully weighing alternatives. According to Janis’s model, consensus-seeking is most likely to occur when the five antecedent conditions are present.
Group Cohesion: According to Janis, group cohesiveness is a necessary but insufficient antecedent condition of groupthink. Janis defined cohesion in terms of the mutual attractiveness of group members—that is, their amiability and esprit de corps—but others believe cohesion is more accurately defined as loyalty to a leader or motivation to maintain group identity. In general, subsequent research has had trouble confirming the link between cohesion and groupthink.
Groupthink: Three years after Janis first introduced his theory, groupthink was added to Webster’s Dictionary, defined as “conformity to group values and ethics. ” Although the full groupthink model includes antecedents, as well as symptoms of groupthink and defective decision making, Janis (1972) refers to the phenomenon in shorthand as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (p. 9).
Symptoms of Defective Decision Making: Janis’s original model of groupthink is tripartite—including antecedent conditions, symptoms of groupthink, and symptoms of defective decision making. Although Janis did not believe symptoms of defective decision making necessarily result in a poor outcome, he did suggest they increase the likelihood of one.
Symptoms of Groupthink: Janis’s original model of groupthink is tripartite—including antecedent conditions, symptoms of groupthink, and symptoms of defective decision making. Janis believed the symptoms of groupthink mediate the relationship between antecedents and poor decision making (Park, 2000).
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