Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be fueled by a particular agenda—or it may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought.
The term “groupthink” was first introduced in the November 1971 issue of Psychology Today by psychologist Irving Janis. Janis had conducted extensive research on group decision-making under conditions of stress.
Since then, Janis and other researchers have found that in a situation that can be characterized as groupthink, individuals tend to refrain from expressing doubts and judgments or disagreeing with the consensus. In the interest of making a decision that furthers their group cause, members may also ignore ethical or moral consequences. While it is often invoked at the level of geopolitics or within business organizations, groupthink can also refer to subtler processes of social or ideological conformity, such as participating in bullying or rationalizing a poor decision being made by one's friends.
Groups that prioritize their group identity and behave coldly toward “outsiders” may be more likely to fall victim to groupthink. Organizations in which dissent is discouraged or openly punished are similarly likely to engage in groupthink when making decisions. High stress is another root cause, as is time pressure that demands a fast decision.
Even in minor cases, groupthink triggers decisions that aren’t ideal or that ignore critical information. In highly consequential domains—like politics or the military—groupthink can have much worse consequences, leading groups to ignore ethics or morals, prioritize one specific goal while ignoring countless collateral consequences, or, at worst, instigate death and destruction.
Groupthink, by definition, results in a decision that is irrational or dangerous. It is possible, however, for teams to make decisions harmoniously and with little disagreement, in ways that are not necessarily indicative of groupthink. While well-functioning teams can (and should) have some conflict, debate (as long as it's respectful) is antithetical to groupthink.
Groupthink and conformity are related but distinct concepts. Groupthink specifically refers to a process of decision-making; it can be motivated by a desire to conform, but isn’t always. Conformity, on the other hand, pertains to individuals who (intentionally or unintentionally) shift their behaviors, appearances, or beliefs to sync up to those of the group.
Risky or disastrous military maneuvers, such as the escalation of the Vietnam War or the invasion of Iraq, are commonly cited as instances of groupthink. In Janis’ original article, he highlighted groupthink during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
To recognize groupthink, it's useful to identify the situations in which it's most likely to occur. When groups feel threatened—either physically or through threats to their identity—they may develop a strong “us versus them” mentality. This can prompt members to accept group perspectives, even when those perspectives don’t necessarily align with their personal views. Groupthink may also occur in situations in which decision-making is rushed—in some cases, with destructive outcomes.
To minimize the risk, it's critical to allow enough time for issues to be fully discussed, and for as many group members as possible to share their thoughts. When dissent is encouraged, groupthink is less likely to occur. Learning about common cognitive biases, as well as how to identify them, may also reduce the likelihood of groupthink.
Individual members of the group self-censoring—especially if they fear being shunned or derided for speaking their mind—is one potential sign that the group may engage in groupthink. If those who do dissent are pressured to recant or conform to the majority view, it may similarly signal groupthink. Groups that actively deride “outsiders” may be more likely to fall prey.
Since groupthink often occurs because group members fear disagreeing with the leader, it can be beneficial for the leader to temporarily step back and allow members to debate the issue themselves. One member of the team can be appointed as “devil’s advocate,” who will argue against the consensus to highlight potential flaws.
Healthy dissent has been linked to more creative thinking and ultimately greater innovation within organizations. Asking one person to deliberately play devil’s advocate and argue with the solutions proposed by the majority is one strategy that has been shown to be effective against groupthink.
Diversity—both demographic diversity and diversity of thought—has been shown to reduce the possibility of groupthink. Group members’ different backgrounds, beliefs, or personality traits can all spawn unique ideas that can inspire innovation. It’s critical, though, that all group members—regardless of their position or demographics—be allowed to contribute to group decision-making.
Organizations that want to support critical thinking, creativity, and innovation should first foster a culture where dissent is allowed and encouraged. They should reward risk-taking, be open to ideas from all group members—regardless of their experience or position—and create regular opportunities for individuals to share their ideas, big and small.