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7 examples of groupthink in different settings

Last updated

23 January 2024

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Dovetail Editorial Team

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Groupthink is one of the pitfalls of the decision-making process. It occurs when a group reaches a consensus without duly evaluating and analyzing the decision. The psychology behind groupthink is the desire for harmony or conformity.

This phenomenon occurs in various settings, including political decision-making, business operations, and education. Depending on the weight of the decision, the consequences of groupthink can have disastrous results.

Let's look at famous and hypothetical groupthink examples and discuss ways to avoid the phenomenon.

What is groupthink?

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a group makes an unreasonable decision driven by a desire to reach a consensus.

These people make this decision without proper analytics, not because they lack the instruments or data, but because they put conformity above critical thinking.   

The concept of groupthink was initially introduced in 1972 by an American psychologist, Irving Janis. He believed that groupthink hurts decision-making because the desire to reach an agreement feels more important than logic. 

Essentially, groupthink becomes a serious barrier to critical thinking, data-driven decision-making, and rationalization.

The leading causes of groupthink include:

  • Like-minded group members: When a group lacks diverse perspectives, it becomes much easier to ignore obvious warnings.

  • Autocratic leaders: Powerful leaders can make it hard for group members to demonstrate opposition.

  • Stressful scenarios: Time constraints or significant pressure could increase the desire to reach a consensus faster.

Since many business and political decisions rely on groups of people who are under pressure and strapped for time, groupthink could lead to serious consequences.  

Signs of groupthink

It’s possible to identify groupthink before making a bad decision. Look for the following signs.

Illusion of invulnerability

Group members believe the group is invincible and can do no wrong. This leads to excessive optimism and unnecessary risk-taking.

Collective rationalization

Group members dismiss obvious warnings or negative feedback that may cause them to rethink their decisions and hinder the feeling of invulnerability.

Belief in inherent morality 

The group believes in the righteousness of its actions, making it difficult for every member to challenge the group's decisions.

Stereotyping

The group applies negative stereotypes to those outside the group, disregarding their perspectives and devaluing their contributions.

Self-censorship

Group members withhold their conflicting opinions or doubts to maintain group harmony and avoid conflict.

Illusion of unanimity 

This perception is that everyone in the group agrees with the decision, even if there are some opposing voices.

Direct pressure on the opposition

The group pressures members who express concerns or opposing opinions to conform to the majority's view. This causes these members to doubt themselves and maintain silence.

"Mind guards"

Some group members take on the role of protecting the group from opposing opinions or information that could challenge the majority's view. This filters out data-backed critical data.

Lack of alternative perspectives 

Group members avoid seeking external opinions. They subconsciously limit their exposure to diverse viewpoints and better solutions.

No critical evaluation 

The group fails to evaluate alternative options or consider potential risks and consequences.

A scientific groupthink example: “The Grouping Game”

Researchers explored the influence of group size on groupthink among 1,480 US participants in a cutting-edge University of Pennsylvania study published in Nature Communications in 2021.

Using the innovative online game "The Grouping Game," individuals were randomly assigned to another player, 6–50 people networks, or play alone. 

The study associated larger group sizes with an increased susceptibility to groupthink, shedding light on the dynamics of collective decision-making within diverse social structures. 

That's why it's imperative to pay extra attention to how a large group makes its decisions.

Hypothetical groupthink examples

Groupthink creeps into decision-making across many group settings. 

Business setting

Imagine a company is running a failing marketing campaign. The marketing team must immediately change the campaign's direction, so they must think and act fast.

Several group members suggest rerouting the marketing budget from SEO to paid ads to achieve fast results. 

Other group members believe that abandoning organic marketing efforts could hurt the campaign in the long run. 

However, they don't voice their opinions because of several factors:

  • The stress and time constraints seem to call for quick fixes

  • Speaking up against the boss who suggests the budget changes could affect their careers

  • They don't want to appear unsupportive

Eventually, the added budget brings more leads to the company's website. However, the lack of on-page SEO efforts leads to low conversion rates.

School setting

A group of students is working on a project that requires a solution to a social issue affecting their community. As the group brainstorms ideas and develops a solution, some members express concerns about its feasibility.

However, instead of critically examining these concerns, most of the group dismisses them because they believe their solution is foolproof. The opposing members begin practicing self-censorship to avoid standing out from the crowd.

Real-world groupthink examples

Groupthink in a political setting has affected the lives of millions of people. The most well-known groupthink examples are:

The bombing of Pearl Harbor

In 1941, senior officers at Pearl Harbor didn't believe the warnings from Washington, DC, about the potential invasion. The decision-makers ignored this information, believing the United States was immune to attack.

Even though Washington shared intercepted Japanese messages, the officers were still sure that the Japanese wouldn't dare attack. They disregarded the possibility due to overconfidence and wanting to maintain conformity, even though it was a realistic threat. 2,403 Americans died as a result.

The Bay of Pigs invasion

In 1961, John F. Kennedy and his advisors planned the Bay of Pigs invasion to achieve a swift overthrow of Fidel Castro's regime. 

The decision-makers became victims of the illusion of invulnerability, hoping Cubans would rise to support them. Another driver was inherent morality, thinking this invasion was liberating Cuba from communism.

Historian Arthur J. Schlesinger strongly objected to this approach. However, he practiced self-censorship and remained silent during the decision-making process.

The result of groupthink in the Bay of Pigs invasion was a poorly planned and executed operation. The invasion force was vastly outnumbered. This led to a quick defeat and embarrassment for the United States.

Swissair

An example of groupthink in a business setting is the story of Swissair, an airline so successful that it was dubbed "The Flying Bank." 

In the 1970s, it was a stable, highly reliable company, viewed by many as the national symbol of Switzerland.

When the airline business became more competitive in the 1980s, Swissair failed to react to the changes due to the illusion of invulnerability. 

Directors of the company had highly similar visions and lacked industry experience. They were sure the company couldn't fail. Swissair eventually collapsed in 2002 due to the directors’ collective rationalization.

A pop culture example: Twelve Angry Men

Juries are highly vulnerable to groupthink. They may be willing to change their opinions or practice self-censorship because they hope to reach a consensus faster or don't want to go against the crowd.

In this movie, 11 out of 12 jurors decided to vote guilty because they believed the defendant was bad, so it was morally acceptable to punish him. 

These people were so sure they were doing the "right thing" that they were willing to ignore evidence or witness testimonies that clearly pointed to the young man's innocence. 

Tips to prevent groupthink

While groupthink is a well-known phenomenon, some businesses can't avoid the problem and face the consequences. To prevent this from happening, you can:

  • Create smaller groups: Groupthink is often a large-group problem, so breaking up groups can encourage active listening.

  • Keep your thoughts to yourself: As a leader, keeping your thoughts to yourself at first can reduce the risk of others agreeing. 

  • Bring in a devil's advocate: When everyone seems to quickly agree, designate a team member to play the role of devil's advocate and challenge assumptions and ideas.

  • Seek external input: Ask for feedback from external experts and stakeholders.

  • Raise awareness: Educate your team about groupthink and discuss the possibility of its occurrence in different settings.

Besides these actionable practices, a long-term goal is to create an environment where team members feel safe to express dissenting opinions without fearing judgment.

Keeping groupthink out of decision-making

Groupthink is a serious problem that can hinder business operations and lead to severe financial and reputational consequences. Understanding this phenomenon is key to recognizing the warning signs and taking preventive measures.

Since it's not always possible to create diverse groups and avoid pressure, it's often up to the leader to monitor the decision-making process and stop groupthink in its tracks.

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