What is groupthink? There is a simple definition for it, but is it truly that simple? The term groupthink refers to the inclination of group members to have the same opinions and beliefs; it frequently leads to mistakes. It often occurs without an individual being aware of it. Conflict is considered to be a harmful element when related to groups, but conflict is good when considering groupthink because it helps to eliminate the existence of a groupthink (Rothwell, 2007). The explanation sounds simple enough, but it is more complex than the description given.
In my Group Dynamics class, our group is vulnerable to groupthink, because the members of our group are similar in background. A group is also vulnerable to groupthink when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making. Groupthink happens most often when group is already cohesive, is isolated from conflicting opinions and where the leader is open and directive. The lack of a formal decision process is also common. From my perspective, problem-solving and task-oriented groups are particularly susceptible. Resulting decisions are often based on incomplete information and fail to consider alternatives and risks (Small group communication).
There are eight symptoms of groupthink. The first symptom is when all or most of the group view themselves as invincible which causes them to make decisions that may be risky. The group has an enormous amount of confidence and authority in their decisions as well as in themselves. They see themselves collectively better in all ways than any other group and they believe the event will go well not because of what it is, but because they are involved. The second symptom is the belief of the group that they are moral and upstanding, which leads the group to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of the decisions. The group engages in a total overestimation of its morality. There is never any question that the group is not doing the right thing, they just act. The disregarding of information or warnings that may lead to changes in past policy is the third symptom. Even if there is considerable evidence against their standpoint, they see no problems with their plan. Stereotyping of enemy leaders or others as weak or stupid is the fourth symptom. This symptom leads to close-mindedness to other individuals and their opinions. The fifth symptom is the self-censorship of an individual causing him to overlook his doubts. A group member basically keeps his mouth shut so the group can continue in harmony. Symptom number six refers to the illusion of unanimity; going along with the majority, and the assumption that silence signifies consent. Sometimes a group member who questions the rightness of the goals is pressured by others into concurring or agreeing, this is symptom number seven. The last symptom is the members that set themselves up as a buffer to protect the group from adverse information that may destroy their shared contentment regarding the group’s effectiveness and morality (Small group communication).
Unfortunately defective group decisions are made which lead to undesired consequences. These consequences can lead to monumental fiascoes. One such fiasco took place in the mining town of Pitcher, Oklahoma in 1950. A mining engineer warned the miners that their town could cave in at any moment from excessive excavating. He suggested immediate evacuation of the town. The leading citizens of the town held a meeting and mocked the engineers’ warning. A few days later, the disaster hit, taking the lives of those who refused to leave. They followed the poor decision made by the leading citizens of the town. All seven symptoms were present in the 1950 mining disaster. A second example of groupthink would be the events surrounding the space shuttle Challenger, the product of flawed decisions. The evidence was inadvisable to launch the space shuttle at the earliest opportunity. NASA’s perspective was that it was undesirable to delay the launch because of the impact it would have on political and public support for the program. Authorities dismissed potentially lethal hazards as only acceptable risks because of NASA’s engineer’s pressure to launch. The decision to launch the shuttle amounted to a much greater loss than the loss of political and public support. A third example of groupthink involves the group around Admiral HE Kimmel, which failed to prepare for the possibility of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor despite repeated warnings. Informed by his intelligence chief that radio contact with Japanese aircraft carriers had been lost, Kimmel joked about it: “What, you don’t know where the carriers are? Do you mean to say that they could be rounding Diamond Head (at Honolulu) and you wouldn’t know it” The carriers were in fact moving full-steam toward Kimmel’s command post at the time. The group rationalized away their warnings. Right up to December 7, 1941, they convinced themselves that the Japanese would never dare attempt a full-scale surprise assault against Hawaii because Japan’s leaders would realize that it would precipitate an all-out war, which the United States would surely win. They made no attempt to look at the situation through the eyes of the Japanese leaders.
We generally feel that a group’s decision will be superior to an individual’s decision. More people mean more information. Having several people reduces the burden placed on one individual and simplifies the task. More people, means that areas of expertise can be exploited, different people are good at different things. Groups can discuss material, and that discussion can improve the quality of the decision. Groups are less likely to suffer from judgmental biases that individuals have when they make decisions. People are more likely to follow through on decisions made by groups that they are connected to. Also, more monumental decisions can be made in groups, because one member will not be singled out for blame, making the entire group responsible.
Groups however, do not always make good decisions. Juries sometimes render verdicts that run against the evidence presented. Groups tend to: fail to adequately determine their objectives and alternatives, fail to assess the risks associated with the group’s decision, fail to cycle through discarded alternatives and to reexamine their worth after a majority of the group discards the alternative, fail to seek expert advice, select and use only information that supports their position and conclusions, and does not make contingency plans in case their decision and resulting actions fail. Many times people’s lives are affected and little thought or care is put into it (Avoiding group-think).
As a student of this Group Dynamics course, it is very important to understand groupthink because of the implications of groups in today's society. We need to know why and how groups make bad decisions and groupthink offers one explanation. However the theory of groupthink should be carefully examined before it is offered as the sole truth of what happens in groups.
Rothwell, J. Dan (2007). In Mixed Company : Communicating in small groups and team. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc.
Small group communication. Retrieved on August 13, 2007, from http://www.abacon.com/commstudies/groups/groupthink.html
Avoiding group-think. Retrieved on August 14, 2007, from
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