Groupthink has been around for as long as humans have formed groups and made decisions together, yet this foundational psychological concept didn’t really get formalized until 1972. A psychologist named Irving Janis coined this term and gave the world its first real look at groupthink, now commonly used in our popular culture.
We’ll discuss one of the most famous examples of groupthink in just a moment, but first let’s focus on exactly what it consists of, since you’ve almost certainly heard this term before and probably have some idea of it in your mind already. What is it?
It has eight parts:
- Illusions of invulnerability (pretty self-explanatory, right?)
- Collective rationalization (of the group’s thinking and its behavior)
- Being the good guy (can’t even imagine the group could be in the wrong)
- In-group vs. out-group divisions (the group caricatures those outside of it)
- Squelch the dissenting view (group members pressured to see the right of the group’s positions and confirm these views)
- Be “yes men” (members expected to confirm what group believes and not find evidence of contradictions or inaccuracy in what it believes)
- Unanimity (the group believes that everyone feels the same way, that there’s no alternative to what it believes)
- Mind control (some in the group have the role of guarding the minds of group members from anything that might challenge their confidence in the group)
This list is somewhat repetitive, but just recall that a group must believe in the rightness of its cause, force out any who disagree, and not allow any disconfirming evidence.
Can you think of any examples of groupthink in the world?
When we think about examples of groupthink in modern life, we need not look far. It’s pretty easy to imagine some degree of groupthink occurs high up in any organization, but these days many people in the United States believe that President Trump’s circle of advisers comes close to groupthink, so let’s look at that.
This is not to get political! I bring up the Trump White House only because one of its highest-ranking members is relevant here. In fact, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster first became famous years ago because of groupthink.
In earning his Ph.D, General McMaster wrote a book about the Lyndon Johnson presidency in which he argued that Johnson and his advisers poorly ran the Vietnam War. Why? They squelched dissenting views, only listened to those who agreed with them, couldn’t fathom that the enemy was even capable of beating them, and were completely convinced they were absolutely right.
Sounds like groupthink.
Later in his career, General McMaster was deployed to Iraq in the early 2000s, where groupthink caused more mismanagement and misfortune. At the time, American forces typically only patrolled and engaged the enemy during daylight hours before heading back to their more secure bases for the night.
This meant that local Iraqis wouldn’t help them because they knew that the enemies of the Americans owned the streets as soon as the sun went down, that they were on their own if attacked.
The American leadership believed only in committing more money and more troops to the war, escalating what was being done rather than evaluating if it was working. General McMaster challenged this groupthink attitude in several ways at various times, eventually causing a large-scale change in strategy.
This gives us a sense of groupthink in action. When groups and their leaders get too rooted in their attitudes, there can be big problems.
There are ways to avoid it. One way to avoid this is to make sure disagreeing members are part of discussions and are able to speak freely. Another is for leaders to be absent or not state their own opinions, so as to avoid pushing the group in a particular direction.
Groupthink is a very social psychological concept to understand. I hope our discussion of it has been useful. It’s not healthy for groups to fall victim to groupthink.