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Groupthink – how safe are we from it?

Filed under: General — MurrayBacon @ 8:45 am Thu 13th September 2007

I am concerned that the MENZ website group may be suffering from Groupthink?

The following description is extracted from Wikipedia:

Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. During Groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight.

Origin
The term was coined in 1952 by William H. Whyte in Fortune:
“Groupthink – a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity – it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity – an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well. ”

Irving Janis, who did extensive work on the subject:
“A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. ”

The word groupthink was intended to be reminiscent of Newspeak words such as “doublethink” and “duckspeak”, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Causes of groupthink
Highly cohesive groups are much more likely to engage in groupthink. The closer they are, the less likely they are to raise questions to break the cohesion. Although Janis sees group cohesion as the most important antecedent to groupthink, he states that it will not invariably lead to groupthink: ‘It is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition’ (Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972).

According to Janis, (a) group cohesion will only lead to groupthink if one of the following two antecedent conditions is present: (b) Structural faults in the organisation: insulation of the group, lack of tradition of impartial leadership, lack of norms requiring methodological procedures, homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology. (c) Provocative situational context: high stress from external threats, recent failures, excessive difficulties on the decision-making task, moral dilemmas.

Social psychologist Clark McCauley’s three conditions under which groupthink occurs:
* Directive leadership.
* Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology.
* Isolation of the group from outside sources of information and analysis.

Symptoms of groupthink

In order to make groupthink testable, Irving Janis devised eight symptoms that are indicative of groupthink (1977).

1. A feeling of invulnerability creates excessive optimism and encourages risk taking.
2. Discounting warnings that might challenge assumptions.
3. An unquestioned belief in the group’s morality, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
4. Stereotyped views of enemy leaders.
5. Pressure to conform experienced by members of the group who might otherwise disagree.
6. Shutting down of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
7. An illusion of unanimity with regards to going along with the group.
8. Mindguards – self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting opinions.

Classic cases of groupthink

Two classical cases studies by sociologists and psychologists are NASA prior to the Challenger disaster and the presidential cabinet during crisis periods. Both of these cases were government organization under extremely high stress, with direct leadership, a situation some theorists have stated contributes to groupthink. NASA actually funded sociologists in the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster to examine how the groups failed in preventing the disaster .

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (1986)

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster is a classic case of groupthink. The Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986. The launch had been originally scheduled for January 22, but a series of problems pushed back the launch date. Scientists and engineers throughout NASA were eager to get the mission underway. The day before the launch an engineer brought up a concern about the o-rings in the booster rockets.

Several conference calls were held to discuss the problem and the decision to go ahead with the launch was agreed upon. The group involved in making the Challenger decision exhibited several of the symptoms of groupthink. They ignored warnings that contradicted the group’s goal. The goal was to get the launch off as soon as possible. They also suffered from a feeling of invulnerability, and therefore failed to completely examine the risks of their decision. Another factor that had suppressed the few engineers who were “going against the grain” and “sounding the alarm” was that all eyes were on NASA not to delay the launch and that Congress was seeking to earmark large funding to NASA given the large amount of publicity on the Teacher in Space program. These misjudgments led to the tragic loss of several astronauts, and a huge black mark on the space shuttle’s (then) near perfect safety record.

Bay of Pigs invasion (1959-1962)
Another closely-studied case of groupthink is the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion [3]. The main idea of the Bay of Pigs invasion was to train a group of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and spark a revolution against Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

The plan was fatally flawed from the beginning, but none of President Kennedy’s top advisers spoke out against the plan.[citation needed] Kennedy’s advisers also had the main characteristics of groupthink; they had all been educated in the country’s top universities, causing them to become a very cohesive group. They were also all afraid of speaking out against the plan, because they did not want to upset the president. The President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, took on the role of a “mind guard”, telling dissenters that it was a waste of their time, because the President had already made up his mind.[4]

Preventing groupthink
According to Irving Janis, decision making groups are not necessarily doomed to groupthink. He also claims that there are several ways to prevent it. Janis devised seven ways of preventing groupthink :

1. Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
2. Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
3. The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
4. All effective alternatives should be examined.
5. Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
6. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
7. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

By following these guidelines, groupthink can be avoided. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, John F. Kennedy sought to avoid groupthink during the Washington Missile Crisis. During meetings, he invited outside experts to share their viewpoints, and allowed group members to question them carefully. He also encouraged group members to discuss possible solutions with trusted members within their separate departments, and he even divided the group up into various sub-groups, in order to partially break the group cohesion. JFK was deliberately absent from the meetings, so as to avoid pressing his own opinion. Ultimately, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved peacefully, thanks in part to these measures.

Criticism
Robert S. Baron contends that recent investigation and testing has not been able to defend the connection between certain antecedents with groupthink. This may simply be due to the fact that the groupthink theory is very difficult to test in a lab situation using the scientific method. Alfinger and Esser also came to the same conclusion. After ending their study, they stated that better methods of testing Janis’ symptoms were needed. It is impossible to create in labs the same conditions under which important government groups work. It is impossible to create the same levels of stress and pressure experienced by high level government officials, with the future of an entire nation hanging in the balance. Baron also contends that the groupthink model applies to a far wider range of groups than Janis originally concluded. This contention remains to be tested.

I am concerned that the MENZ website group may be suffering from Groupthink?

Is this group cohesiveness reducing our ability to collect evidence from a broad range of sources, to honestly weigh all of the evidence, to examine issues about protecting our children and giving our children the best upbringing?

What can we do to improve our breadth of perspective?

Can we learn from the initiatives that the familycaught is taking, courtesy of Judge Boshier?

President Kennedy applied several good ideas in his management of the Washington Missile Crisis (the Cubans weren’t particularly concerned, so it must be called the Washington Missile crisis – they were concerned!).

“Isolation of the group from outside sources of information and analysis.” Part of the solution must lie in listening carefully.

In your experience, is the familycaught a listening and learning organisation?

How quickly are we learning from our experiences?

If we put more pressure onto familycaught, possibly they will become more defensive and thus never ever get any better?

Lots of crushing hugs, love and kisses, MurrayBacon the challenger.

8 Responses to “Groupthink – how safe are we from it?”

  1. Scrap_The_CSA says:

    Groupthink is a theory that was developed in hindsight. All of the examples given in the original theory were offered post hoc which is problematic. Since its inception it has been revisted and studies have raised viable questions about the validity of the assumptions made in groupthink

    Internal Consistency – Groupthink is argued by many researchers. Some agree but new research suggests that groupthink should be re-developed because it is not matching the current research on effective decision-making and cohesiveness.

    Heuristic Provocativeness – There are several new hypothesis that can be offered about what happens in cohesive groups. Researchers are working on new ideas as we speak.

    Organizing Power – A major drawback on groupthink is there was never a specific set of criteria of what groupthink is so that it could be tested. There were only symptoms to be interrupted by the researcher looking a group’s decision.

    Remember Demming, Murrary – focus on the process; not the outcome of the process.

    Regards

    Scrap

  2. Scrap_The_CSA says:

    It appears that two comments from Ben Easton have been deleted.

    As much as I may disagree with Ben and get frustrated by his continual highjacking of threads voices of difference are important.

    Regards

    Scrap

  3. Benjamin Easton says:

    Thank you Scrap,

    in fact up to 6 of my posts have been removed and each of them is critical to having reached a position where Murray has posted independently my last comment as though if an item directly for discussion.

    I note, as consistent with all of these events that the primary post which I challenge remains, and the comments I make, I would presume for their accuracy have been deleted.

  4. julie says:

    While your at making decisions, can you please include Waitakere.

  5. JohnP says:

    Scrap: It appears that two comments from Ben Easton have been deleted.

    I (somewhat randomly) delete comments when they have absolutely no relationship to the post, and Ben is a repeat and annoying offender. It is NOT appropriate to use MENZ for personal communications like the one of his which I just removed from this page.

    There are a few people unprepared get with the programme who have been banned completely. Please note that the one MENZ rule which you don’t have to scroll to see is:

    Do not post questions or comments relating to the appropriateness of another member’s post, or about the the moderating of this forum. In all cases, please report activity that you believe contradicts these rules, or questions about the moderating of the forums, to the forum moderator.

    Further down the page:

    Discussion must remain on-topic

    I never intentionally remove comments because I disagree with them (although I often don’t understand what Ben is writing about); but free speech and open discussion needs to have some boundaries to be useful.

    Discussion environments where “anything goes” discourage participation by anyone other than the most motivated and fanatic radicals. I think Murrray’s challenge has considerable validity – men with moderate viewpoints continually withdraw because they are not treated respectfully.

  6. Scrap_The_CSA says:

    Thanks John,

    My comment was not intended as a crticism and I apologise if it appeared as such.

    I agree with your observation and thank you for your clarification.

    I also think there is validity to Murray’s view but (as comment 1 shows) acknowledge that there are some “issues” with quantifying group-think.

    Regards

    Scrap

  7. MurrayBacon says:

    Dear Mr_or_Mrs Scrap_The_CSA,
    thank you for your adding that Groupthink lacks rigorous a priori identification and thus the concept lacks some justification.
    Nonetheless, the remedies proposed are still relevant and extremely usefull, as the wiki examples show. Maybe, in challenging situations, the remedies suggested are essential.
    Most importantly of all, you identified that my targets were ourselves plus familycaught. This is surely the most important point.
    I deleted Ben’s posts, as they become redundant after I boiled them down to their essentials and reposted into a fresh thread. This is obviously what Ben should have done himself! I have always enjoyed deleting his posts, when totally off topic or abusive and I expect that I will continue to do this, if it should ever be required.
    Clarity does not come accidentally for me. Often, I find it necessary to pre-write in a text editor, print and read, for a day or several. When I don’t show this patience, alas it shows!
    I do accept your criticism, of my deleting. Therefore, I am returning your offered apology, unused and undamaged.
    I hope that we can all, before criticising the familycaught, look with a fair set of eyes, at our own part in this debacle and the quality of our performance now, best regards, MurrayBacon.

  8. Scrap_The_CSA says:

    Murray,

    I have not proffered an apology to you. My words were addressed to John P.

    Your inability to accept criticism while claiming the authority to deliver it is amusing given the subject of your post.

    I have always enjoyed deleting his posts, when totally off topic or abusive and I expect that I will continue to do this, if it should ever be required.

    Sums it up Murray.

    I hope that we can all, before criticising the familycaught, look with a fair set of eyes, at our own part in this debacle and the quality of our performance now

    You speak for yourself Murray no one else. I am not part of your “our”

    Regards

    Scrap

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