What is Groupthink?
Groupthink is a phenomenon in which a group of people who share common values come to reach a false consensus that they all held without critical evaluation. Groupthink can result in irrational and poor-quality decisions, programs, and policies. Groupthink is most likely to happen when the group’s members are similar in background or status (e.g., age, gender) and have made little effort to search out differing opinions. Dr. Jordan Sudberg explains: “When people have common pre-existing beliefs, or similar backgrounds, or are not familiar with other viewpoints (or don’t have time to think), they tend to fall into groupthink.”
Groupthink is most likely to occur when a group’s members share similar backgrounds (e.g., age, gender), when they lack a history of different viewpoints being presented or debated by the group members and when they feel pressure from above to make decisions quickly before voices in opposition to the consensus can be heard. Groups give off misleading signals about their thinking that can affect this process.He explains that “the more homogeneous the people are and the more they are committed to a particular outcome, the more biased their communication is likely to be, and the more likely they are to perceive events in a predetermined way.” Dr. Sudberg notes that “a host of studies have found that groups tend to develop overoptimistic perceptions of their collective performance, both in simulated settings and in real-world experiments.” He adds that this “groupthink effect does not reside in the leader so much as in large coalitions of like-minded individuals.”
Groupthink can occur when people are motivated by fear, but it can also happen consciously. A group can choose not to challenge its assumptions and beliefs because it believes this will inhibit a decision’s acceptance by others. It discourages members from challenging ideas that they know may be wrong. According to Sudberg, “The most common mechanism through which groups produce a faulty consensus is through miscommunication, both with one another as well as external observers.”
Groupthink is a term coined by Irving Janis in 1972 to describe a pattern of thought that often leads to poor decisions. The theory builds on Sigmund Freud’s work on the unconscious mind. According to Dr. Jordan Sudberg, “the Groupthink model was how I was trained, and it was probably an expert system that translated my intuitions into a formal model.” In describing groupthink, Janis claims that when there are many decision-makers and compromise is needed, people can be unwilling to consider alternative viewpoints and instead focus on available information from all group members.
Groupthink is not a clear-cut theory. It is based on the notion that a number of factors can influence the decision-making process and make it more likely to yield poor decisions. However, recent studies show that groups reach optimal decisions in less than 40 minutes when they typically take up to an hour or longer. One long-term study involving 5,000 subjects found that groupthink almost always occurs and that participants cannot identify even the most straightforward cases of groupthink; participants often blamed a group member for not challenging an idea rather than acknowledging their unwillingness to challenge assumptions that were hardly challenged at all by others.
Groupthink theory assumes that groups of people are limited in their ability to think objectively and critically. It is because they have only a little time to decide. During these short periods, they wish to appear confident by offering counter-ideas, thus encouraging groupthink and conformity.