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Groupthink
Our third theory is Groupthink. Groupthink attempts to explain decision making in
small groups. Having worked in small groups for work and for classes, I’m sure
you will find this theory quite interesting!
To help you understand Groupthink before you do your readings and listen to the lecture, please
look at this summary about Irving Janis’ “groupthink” theory. I think it presents his ideas
concisely and clearly.
http://www.psysr.org/about/pubs_resources/groupthink%20overview.htm
Also, please read your reading on Groupthink before watching the
Challenger Disaster video (link below). As you read this entry, please pay
particular attention to:
• the definition of Groupthink
• the antecedent conditions for groupthink to occur
• the 8 symptoms of groupthink, and
• the ways in which groupthink can be prevented.
Groupthink is particularly important because most of us have to work in groups and we need to know why
they function well or not.
The Groupthink Video I ask you to watch this week provides an example of the possible devastating
consequences of Groupthink. Specifically, it shows how the decision to launch the Space Shuttle
Challenger in January 1986 led to the untimely death of seven individuals. As a little background on the
video, a company called Morton Thiokol developed the seals to the rockets that lifted the Shuttle into
space. If the seals couldn’t close, the rockets wouldn’t function properly. The video is a re-enactment of a
Morton Thiokol meeting where groupthink allowed the company to tell NASA to go ahead with the launch
in weather many Morton Thiokol engineers felt was too cold for the seals to work properly.
Some Questions for You
1. Please relate an example of Groupthink you have experienced, analyzing the situation based upon the
“symptoms” of groupthink described in the video and in your readings. Be sure to identify the terms of
various parts of group think. What did you learn from this experience? Chapter 13 in A Primer on
Communication Studies can show you how managing your small group interaction is very different from
your one-on-one interactions.
2. If you have not experienced groupthink, then please tell us: How do power relations influence how
important decisions get made? When you become a boss (if you are not already), how will you use
communication tactics wisely to avoid groupthink in your team?
I look forward to hearing your stories!
460
Groupthink
Frey, L. R. (Ed.). (2003). Group communication in
context: Studies of bona fide groups. Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum.
Frey, L. R., Gouran, D. S., & Poole, M. S. (Eds.). (1999).
The handbook of group communication theory and
research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gastil, J. (2009). The group in society. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Sage.
Hare, A. P. (1976). Handbook of small group research
(2nd ed.). New York: Free Press.
Levine, J. M., & Moreland, R. L. (1990). Progress in
small group research. Annual Review of Psychology,
41, 585–634.
Poole, M. S., & Hollingshead, A. B. (Eds.). (2005).
Theories of small groups: Interdisciplinary
perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wheelan, S. A. (Ed.). (2005). The handbook of group
research and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wittenbaum, G. M., Keyton, J., & Weingart,
L. R. (2006). A new era for group research: The
formation of INGRoup. Small Group Research,
37, 575–581.
Groupthink
Irving Janis used the term groupthink to refer to a
condition in which highly cohesive groups strive to
reach unanimity in their decision making at the
expense of adequately examining alternative solutions. Such groups desire to maintain a cohesive
atmosphere in the group to the extent that
members are not to “rock the boat” or “stir the
waters.” The condition ultimately leads to a deterioration in decision processes that usually results in
poor decisions. The groupthink hypothesis is intimately tied to how group members communicate
with one another. This entry explores groupthink,
identifying its antecedent conditions, cor­r­es­ponding
symptoms, effect on decision processes and
decisions, and ways the phenomenon might be
prevented.
Although Irving Janis did not coin the term, his
conceptualization of groupthink has had the most
significant and lasting impact on those wishing to
learn more about group and organizational functioning. It all started with the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
In April 1961, a rebel force backed by the U.S.
government made a landing at the Bay of Pigs,
Cuba, in an effort to topple the newly established
government of Fidel Castro. President John F.
Kennedy and some of his most trusted advisers
made decisions to cancel plans for additional
rounds of bombings of Cuban airfields, changed
the original and better landing site of the invasion
force, and failed to provide air support for the
rebels. The decisions doomed any hopes of the
success of the invasion. A substantial number of
the rebel force were killed in battle or captured
and executed.
Irving Janis later claimed the Bay of Pigs disaster was one of the biggest fiascoes ever perpetrated
by a government. He was bothered with the question of how groups of learned people could collectively make such bad decisions. He suggested
this topic to his daughter, who was writing a term
paper. Examining her research, Janis’s curiosity
was piqued, and he subsequently formulated the
essential features of what would come to be known
as the groupthink hypothesis.
There are certain characteristics that lay the
foundation for groupthink. Among these antecedents are group cohesiveness, structural faults, and
a provocative situational context. Cohesiveness
refers to a state of mutual liking and attraction
among group members; group members are amiable and united and have a desire to maintain
positive relationships, and a feeling of esprit de
corps is present. Structural faults may include the
group’s insulation from external sources of information and counsel, lack of an established tradition of impartiality on the part of the leader, lack
of norms for decision-making procedures, and
homogeneity of group members with regard to
social background and ideology. Provocative situational contexts are the kinds that impose high
levels of stress on group members. These stresses
may be due to a previous or recent record of failure, perceptions that the task may be too difficult,
or the belief that there is no morally correct alternative available.
Of the three antecedents, cohesiveness is believed
to be primary and, when paired with one of the
other two antecedents, results in a greater likelihood that the group will suffer from groupthink.
When cohesion is moderate to high, and one of the
other antecedents is present, group members are
likely to have a concurrence-seeking tendency
when making decisions. This tendency in turn is
Groupthink
likely to manifest itself in the eight symptoms of
groupthink outlined by Janis:
1. Illusion of invulnerability: Members are highly
optimistic and willing to take extreme risks.
2. Collective efforts to rationalize: Members cast
doubt on the validity of information that brings
into question assumptions made.
3. Illusion of morality: The moral consequences of
a decision go unexplored because group members
do not question the morality of the group.
4. Excessive stereotyping: The group views rivals
as too evil to warrant serious negotiation with
them, or too weak or stupid in efforts to defeat
the group.
5. Pressure to conform: Pressure is brought to bear
against those members who disagree with the
group, often through claims that such
disagreements are indicative of disloyalty.
6. Self-censorship: Members do not voice
dissenting or contrary views to the group
consensus.
7. Illusion of unanimity: There is a false perception
that members have achieved a consensus; silence
is consent.
8. Self-appointed mindguards: Some members take
on the role of guarding the group from
information that might call into question the
effectiveness and morality of decisions made.
If these symptoms are present, the group fails to
use vigilance in its decision-making process. When
groups engage in vigilant decision making, they
adequately (a) survey the possible alternatives/
solutions available; (b) survey the objectives to be
accomplished; (c) examine the risks and benefits
associated with the alternatives; (d) perform an
information search; (e) process the information in
an unbiased manner; (f) reappraise the alternatives
in light of risks and benefits before making a final
choice; and (g) work out a plan for implementing
the desired choice, along with contingency plans
should additional risks associated with that choice
become known.
When vigilance is not present, the likelihood of
making bad decisions increases and ultimately may
461
result in a decision-making fiasco. Given the negative consequences of groupthink, there are several
steps a group should take in an effort to prevent it.
The group leader should establish an atmosphere
of open inquiry and impartiality and should withhold stating preferred courses of action at the outset. The leader should also encourage members to
air objections and doubts; one or more members
should play the role of devil’s advocate, taking and
voicing informed positions contrary to the prevailing position. Several subgroups working on the
same problem should be formed, coming together
at a future time to iron out differences. Finally,
individuals from outside the group should be
brought into group meetings to observe and challenge prevailing views, especially those of powerful
group members.
The research that has investigated the groupthink phenomenon has at times yielded equivocal
results. Primarily, the importance of cohesiveness
in the groupthink model has been questioned. As a
consequence, some have called for a reformulation
of the original model to include other variables
that might help to better explain the tendency
toward ineffective group decision making. Among
these calls has been a need to focus on, for example, the concept of collective efficacy (the belief of
group members about their ability to effectively
accomplish the group’s task) and the role of motivations in decision making.
The groupthink hypothesis has spurred much
research, and the phenomenon has been put forward as a reason for faulty decision making in
many historical contexts: the Bay of Pigs, Pearl
Harbor, Viet Nam, the Watergate break-in, and the
space shuttle Challenger explosion. The research
and analyses concerning the groupthink hypothesis
have also had a tremendous impact on policymaking in organizational and community settings. In
the communication discipline, Janis and his colleagues’ work on groupthink has directly influenced the development of the functional perspective
of effective decision making and the vigilant interaction theory. The hypothesis has retained its
appeal in the years since it was first put forward,
as evidenced by the number of scholarly references
to it, the research it has spurred, and the changes
it has instigated in the workplace.
Abran J. Salazar
462
Groupthink
See also Bona Fide Group Theory; Creativity in Groups;
Functional Group Communication Theory; Group
Communication Theories
Further Readings
Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A
psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and
fiascoes. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of
policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Janis, I. L., & Mann, L. (1977). Decision making: A
psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and
commitment. New York: Free Press.
Raven, B. (1998). Groupthink, Bay of Pigs,
and Watergate reconsidered. Organizational
Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73,
352–361.
Whyte, G. (1998). Recasting Janis’s groupthink model:
The key role of collective efficacy in decision fiascoes.
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision
Processes, 73, 185–209.

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