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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.

Why Groupthink Happens

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.

What causes groupthink?

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. 

Why can groupthink be dangerous?

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.

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How to Recognize and Avoid Groupthink
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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.

What are the symptoms 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.

What’s the best way to avoid groupthink?

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.

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