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Deep Thoughts

About Groupthink
October 5, 2006
Brief History of Bad Decisions
 Pearl Harbor:
 Advance warning of an attack: Military commanders
received information about Japanese plans to attack
Pearl Harbor.
 Intelligence lost contact with aircraft carriers moving
toward Hawaii. Failed to send air reconnaissance
which could have given warning.
 Result: No alert was sounded until attack. Loss of 18
ships, 170 planes, 3700 lives.
Another Bad Decision
 The Bay of Pigs Invasion
 1961 Kennedy and advisors tried to overthrow Castro
by supporting an invasion of Cuba with 1400 CIA
trained Cuban exiles.
 Believed that troops could retreat to mountains that
were actually on the other side of the island. Troops
actually deployed in a swamp and were immediately
 Created alliance between Cuba and USSR which gave
rise to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Groupthink Defined
 “The mode of thinking that persons engage in
when concurrence-seeking becomes so
dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to
over-ride realistic appraisals of alternative
courses of action.”
Janis, 1971
Symptoms of Groupthink
 Illusion of invulnerability
 Many believed that the Japanese would never risk
attacking the US. Admiral joked about the idea
right before it happened.
 Collective rationalization
 President Johnson’s Tuesday lunch group spent
more time justifying the Vietnam war than
reflecting upon and rethinking past decisions.
Symptoms of Groupthink
 Belief in inherent morality
 Kennedy group knew that some cabinet members
had moral reservations about invading a smaller
neighboring country but these reservations were
never explored.
 Stereotyped views of out-groups
 Kennedy group convinced themselves that Castro’s
army was so weak and popular support so shallow
that a single brigade could overturn the government.
Symptoms of Groupthink
 Direct pressure on dissenters
 People who disagree are ridiculed. Once, when President
Johnson’s assistant entered the room, the president said,
“Well here comes Mr. Stop the Bombing.”
 Self-censorship
 Following the Bay of Pigs invasion Arthur Schlesinger said,
“my feelings of guilt were tempered by the knowledge that
any objection would have accomplished nothing but gain me
a name as a nuisance.”
Symptoms of Groupthink
 Illusion of unanimity
 Absence of dissent creates an illusion of unanimity.
Everyone might disagree but everyone thinks that
everyone else agrees.
 Self-appointed ‘mindguards’
 People who protect the leader from hearing
disagreeable facts. Top NASA executive who made
the decision to launch never heard the engineers’
Signs of a Bad Decision Making
 Incomplete survey of alternatives
 Failure to examine risks of preferred choices.
 Poor information search.
 Selective bias in processing information at
 Failure to work out contingency plans.
Evaluating the Theory
 Groupthink is a hugely influential concept
 Some have argued that it has more “heuristic”
than theoretical value.
 Is Groupthink still a useful concept?
Scrutinizing the Laundry List
 Illusion of invulnerability  How many symptoms does a
 Collective rationalization group need to receive a
 Belief in inherent morality groupthink “diagnosis”?
 Stereotyped views of out-  Are some symptoms more
groups important than others?
 Direct pressure on dissenters  Does a group experience
 Self-censorship some symptoms before
 Illusion of unanimity others?
 Self-appointed ‘mindguards’  Is each symptom unique?
Or, redundant?
Hindsight bias?
Illusion of Invulnerability Confidence and conviction
and inherent morality
Pressure on dissenters and Commitment and
self-censorship cooperation
Self-appointed mindguards Loyalty to leader
Question: Once we know the outcome (e.g. It Blew Up!) can we
then “spin” the reinterpret events to fit the theory? If a stupid
decision turned out well, was it still groupthink?
 What types of tasks or situations might
groupthink apply to? (Beyond just decision-
making?). Can groupthink be applied to
everyday decisions?

 Does a group need to be under threat? Janis

theorized that they do.
 Cohesiveness (mutual attraction for the group
and its members) is central to Janis’ theory.
 Can cohesiveness ever reduce groupthink?
 EXAMPLE: In a cohesive group, people may be less
likely to censor their opinions and more likely to
Groupthink and strong cultures
Illusion of invulnerability Make bold and risky
commitments to audacious
projects (Collins & Porras)

Belief in inherent morality Driven by an ideology (e.g.

Johnson & Johnson, Disney)
Direct pressure on dissenters, Eject dissent like a virus
Verdict on groupthink
 Is groupthink a useful
construct? If so, why?
 Why has groupthink
survived for so long
when other theories have
been forgotten?