Groupthink is a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 to describe a process by which a group can make bad or irrational decisions. In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. In a general sense this seems to be a very rationalistic way to approach the situation. However this results in a situation in which the group ultimately agrees upon an action which each member might individually consider to be unwise (the risky shift).

Janis' original definition of the term was "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." The word groupthink was intended to be reminiscent of George Orwell's coinages (such as doublethink and duckspeak) from the fictional language Newspeak, which he portrayed in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Groupthink tends to occur on committees and in large organizations. Janis originally studied the Pearl Harbor bombing, the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Symptoms of Groupthink:

Janis cited a number of antecedent conditions that would be likely to encourage groupthink. These include

  1. Insulation of the group
  2. High group cohesiveness
  3. Directive leadership
  4. Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures
  5. Homogeneity of members' social background and ideology
  6. High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s)

Janis listed eight symptoms that he said were indicative of groupthink

  1. Illusion of invulnerability
  2. Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group
  3. Collective rationalization of group's decisions
  4. Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents
  5. Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms
  6. Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect)
  7. Direct pressure on dissenters to conform
  8. Self-appointed "mindguards" protect the group from negative information

Finally, the seven symptoms of decision affected by groupthink are

  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives
  2. Incomplete survey of objectives
  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  4. Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives
  5. Poor information search
  6. Selective bias in processing information at hand
  7. Failure to work out contingency plans

Preventing groupthink

One mechanism which management consultants recommend to avoid groupthink is to place responsibility and authority for a decision in the hands of a single person who can turn to others for advice. Others advise that a pre-selected individual take the role of disagreeing with any suggestion presented, thereby making other individuals more likely to present their own ideas and point out flaws in others' — and reducing the stigma associated with being the first to take negative stances. Anonymous feedback via suggestion box or online chat has been found to be a useful remedy for groupthink — negative or dissenting views of proposals can be raised without any individual being identifiable by others as having lodged a critique. Thus the social capital of the group is preserved, as all members have plausible deniability that they raised a dissenting point. Institutional mechanisms such as an inspector general system can also play a role in preventing groupthink as all participants have the option of appealing to an individual outside the decision-making group who has the authority to stop non-constructive or harmful trends. Another possibility is giving each participant in a group a piece of paper, this is done randomly and without anyone but the receiver being able to read it. Two of the pieces of paper have "dissent" written on them, the others are blank. People have to dissent if the paper says so (like a Devil's Advocate), no-one is able to know if the other person is expressing dissent because they recieved a pre-marked "dissent" piece of paper or because it's an honest dissent. Also, as with every Devil's Advocate, there exists the possibility that the person adopting this role would think about the problem in a way that they wouldn't have if not under that role, and so promoting creative and critical thought. Another way which is of special use in very assymetric relations (as in a classroom) is to say something which is essentially wrong or false, having given (or being obvious that the persons that may be groupthinking know about that) the needed information to realize its inconsistency previously, if at the start of the class the teacher told the students that he would do so and not tell them when he did until the end of the class, they would be stimulated to criticize and "process" information instead of merely assimilating it. An alternative to groupthink is a formal consensus decision-making process, which works best in a group whose aims are cooperative rather than competitive, where trust is able to build up, and where participants are willing to learn and apply facilitation skills.