Is our desire for comradery so over-whelming
that we've become Lemmings?
“Groupthink” is said to occur within a group when the organization’s desire for cohesion and unanimity overrides its ability to objectively engage in thorough, rational discourse on a subject. It is a disease of thought that has infected various organizations, ranging from think-tanks, policymakers, corporate boardrooms, and has even made its way presidential “situation rooms.” Groupthink is most certainly as grave a threat to national security as proposed by Irving Janis, and every precautionary measure possible must be made in order to prevent it from taking root.
It can be asserted that Groupthink is an unfortunate side effect of humanity’s innate, evolutionary predisposition towards favoring organization. It has been linked to various disasters throughout history, such as the Challenger space shuttle catastrophe and the Bay of Pigs. While it is true that Janis established a connection between these events and groupthink retrospectively, it is worth noting that in the decades following his initial report on groupthink, his theories and findings have been validated by a fairly substantial body of literature and independent research, (Aldag, 1993).
There are several reasons that Groupthink must be viewed as a potential threat to national security. First and foremost, by definition, it entails the clouding of judgment of the “experts” who compose a group. Anything but the most rational and sound discussion on a topic as sensitive as military strategy or counterterror can obviously have profoundly grave consequences. Furthermore, and more abstractly, Groupthink contradicts the very reasons for the establishing of many of the organizations it affects. It can be reasonably assumed that many panels or boards were created in order to provide a diverse set of minds and backgrounds to analyze a situation, thus limiting the role that human error tied to the fallibility of one lone mind can play during the decision-making process. If the flow of free thought becomes contaminated in such a manner, the group’s usefulness is essentially nullified and any decision they reach may be only marginally better than a unilateral decision made by one sole actor.
There are eight calling cards, or symptoms that an organization may be operating under the influence of groupthink, and they are:
Invulnerability, the idea that the group is beyond or immune to making errors.
Morality, the notion that the group’s cause is the upright or “morally justified” one.
Rationale, which entails the rebuttal of warnings possibly through the use of past experiences in order to delude the group members into believing that such warnings are unfounded, (the example given during the Challenger disaster was citing the fact that take-offs hadn’t been a problem in the past, despite the newfound problems).
Stereotyping, which involves the creation of a largely imaginary “them and us” dichotomy, tied to the idea that those outside of the group are ignorant or possibly misinformed.
Self-censorship, which is the suppression of ideas viewed as being contradictory to the consensus of the group as a whole.
Illusions of unanimity, which is when silence is viewed as a passive form of agreement.
Direct pressure, labeling dissenters within the group as being disloyal; and finally;
mind-guards, the self-appointed individuals who actively attempt to “shield” the group from outside thoughts or ideas which may undermine the current thoughts within the group, (Janis, 1971).
Interestingly, it seems as though the risk of Groupthink infiltrating an organization is directly proportionate to the level of camaraderie felt within said group. As individuals become more comfortable with one another, there is a general tendency to lower one’s guard when in their presence. Concurrent with this is the desire for work to be accomplished and for conclusions to be reached. This provides an ideal breeding ground for the insidious nature of Groupthink to flourish.
Very recently, there has been some level of debate in the media surrounding Groupthink. The recent discourse began shortly after the death of Steve Jobs, and there seem to be two schools of thought pertaining to it. One camp asserts that “the lone genius” is more productive and efficient when they are permitted to work in isolation of others and by definition will never succumb to Groupthink, (Cain, 2012). The other insists that the greatest strategies have emerged from the result of group-based discussion, but still openly admits that precautionary measures must be taken to inhibit the development of Groupthink, (Govindarajan and Terwilliger, 2012).
Earlier this month, the topic of Groupthink arose in relation to the appointment of John Kerry as the new Secretary of State. Kerry, a long-time supporter of close relations between the United States and Armenia, has been accused of succumbing to the Washington DC’s Groupthink surrounding the fostering of a stronger Turkish-American alliance. The author, of obviously pro-Armenian bias, contends that Turkey should not so readily be considered an ally of the United States, as there is a trend under their current president of Islamism slowly creeping back into the culture of the nation, and that Armenia and its surrounding region are of strategic value to the USA as China has expressed interest in expanding their influence in the region, (Seto, 2013). For this reason, the writer claims that Kerry is guilty of abandoning his own beliefs in order to conform to the prevailing beliefs of his peers, and thus, is jeopardizing foreign relations due to Groupthink.
Aldag, R. J., & Fuller, S. R. (1993). Beyond fiasco: A reappraisal of the groupthink phenomenon and a new model of group decision processes. Psychological Bulletin, 113(3).
Boyadijian, Seto (February 8, 2013). Kerry’s Dilemma: The Groupthink on Turkey. Asbarez.com. Retrieved from: http://asbarez.com/108218/kerry%E2%80%99s-dilemma-the-groupthink-on-turkey/
Cain, Susan (January 13, 2012). The Rise of the New Groupthink. The New York Times. Retrieved from:
Govindarajan, Vijay and Terwilliger, Jay (July 25, 2012). Yes, You Can Brainstorm Without Groupthink. Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Retrieved from:http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/yes_you_can_brainstorm_without.html
Janis, I. (November 1971). Groupthink. Psychology Today.
Thank you to UNH Masters candidate Coulson Hageman for his work which appears above.