Irving Janis And Psychology

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever wondered why people in power with plenty of experience and resources can still make such poor decisions sometimes? While it’s understandable how one person’s judgment could become easily clouded by outside factors, it would seem that a group of political leaders should be able to control for such influences. Political psychology questions like these were what American psychologist Irving Janis dedicated his career to. As a result of his research in the field, Janis proposed the concept of groupthink, which he posited can negatively influence the decisions that groups of people may come to. Read on to learn more about Janis, his work, and this core element of it.

Learn about Irving Janis and political psychology

Who was Irving Janis?

Irving Janis was an American psychologist who was born in Buffalo, New York in 1918. As a young adult, he studied psychology at the University of Chicago before going on to earn his PhD from Columbia University in New York. After joining the psychology department at Yale University, Irving Janis began working as a researcher, primarily studying psychological distress and personal decision-making. 

Groupthink and foreign policy decisions

Irving Janis’ research led him to study group decision-making—especially as it relates to political psychology—and eventually publish his groundbreaking book, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Houghton Mifflin, 1972). In his book, Janis explains how groupthink makes it hard for individuals to question a group’s decisions. Irving Janis then makes the case that groups previously in charge of the United States’ foreign policy were influenced by such dynamics. Janis wrote several other books on groupthink and the decision-making process, including A Practical Guide to Making Decisions (Free Press, 1980) and Stress, Attitudes, and Decisions: Selected Papers (Praeger, 1982). 

Later career and death

Irving Janis received the Socio-Psychological Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1967, and the APA’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1981. He retired from Yale University in 1985, and in 1986 he was made Adjunct Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of California. His involvement in groupthink research continued until his death. While working as an adjunct professor, Janis wrote his last book, Crucial Decisions: Leadership in Policy-making and Crisis Management (Free Press, 1989). Irving Janis died of lung cancer on November 15, 1990. Today, Janis is best remembered for this groupthink theory.

What is political psychology?

Political psychology is a discipline that studies politics, politicians, and psychological principles related to both. Researchers in this field want to understand why political leaders behave the way they do, how they interact with each other, and what the outcomes of those interactions are for the populations they represent. It was within the realm of political and social psychology that Irving Janis developed his concept of groupthink.

Janis’s groupthink concept

Irving Janis’s groupthink theory posits that groups of people can sometimes make unfavorable decisions because of the urge to conform and concur.

As a result, group members may fail to adequately consider all possible options, and any one person’s ability to dissent or push back against the status quo may seem limited or impossible. Groupthink discourages highly creative choices and solutions and, in Janis's estimation, tends to result in disastrous outcomes.

How groupthink influences crucial decisions

Groupthink can occur in any type of group, from individuals gathered together for a class project to high-level political leaders gathered to address a serious issue. According to Irving Janis, symptoms of this phenomenon that suggest it may be likely to occur include:

  • Rationalization, which can happen when the group begins to settle on an answer
  • Morality, when the group believes their cause is right and are willing to do whatever it takes to advance it
  • Stereotypes, meaning that they assume that anyone in the outgroup is inferior
  • Pressure, which the group may feel once they’ve developed a perspective on the issue 
  • Self-censorship, causing anyone who may have doubts about the group consensus to keep those doubts to themselves
  • Unanimity, or the assumption that the decision the majority comes to is unanimous

Groups where groupthink is liable to occur often have high social cohesion and are not very diverse. They may have insufficient information to go on and be unlikely to seriously look for more, and the situation at hand may be high stress. Anyone who dissents or brings up alternative viewpoints may be ignored, shot down, or may anticipate that they would be. The group typically doesn’t make a plan B and will likely fail to take the risks of their decision into proper consideration. While the resulting decisions are not always bad in groups like these, they are more likely to be problematic, inefficient, and at worst, negatively impact those outside the group.

How to avoid groupthink

In addition to identifying the theory of groupthink and the situations in which it’s likely to occur, Janis also suggested measures that group leaders and participants can use to try and prevent it from happening in his book Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. These include:

  • Leaders taking an impartial stance on the issue or new policy to alleviate the pressure to conform
  • Experts on the topic being invited to express their perspectives one at a time so the group can consider all the relevant information and perspectives
  • Someone in the group playing devil’s advocate to help evaluate different ideas from various perspectives
  • Splitting the groups into smaller sub-groups to discuss, and then reconvening
  • Making a specific effort to consider how those affected by the decision will respond—especially if they are rival nations, in the case of major political choices

How groupthink may affect your life

At different times in our lives, we may all be part of different groups that are charged with making decisions. While most of us won’t be making political choices that affect entire populations, we still usually want to make the best decisions possible—large or small. If you frequently form a part of a group at work, in school, or in your community, learning to combat groupthink can assist you in ensuring these groups function optimally. Building your own communication skills, strengthening your sense of empathy, and honing your collaboration abilities can all be helpful to this end. 

Learn about Irving Janis and political psychology

How therapy can help

If you’re looking to improve your interpersonal skills so you can function better in groups and other social or work settings, therapy is one option to consider. A therapist can help you develop these abilities so you have a toolkit to draw from when engaging with others in group scenarios, especially when you’re tasked with making crucial decisions.

When it comes to connecting with a therapist, you have options. If you’d prefer to meet with someone in person, you can search for a provider in your local area. If you’d prefer to connect with a mental health professional from the comfort of your own home, you might consider virtual therapy. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with from home or anywhere else you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online and in-person methods can provide similar outcomes in most cases, so you can choose the format that works best for you.


Irving Janis was an American psychologist who came up with the theory of groupthink, which is when the pressure to conform limits the decision-making abilities of a group. Janis authored the book Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Janis not only identified groupthink, but also identified ways that the phenomenon can be avoided. If you’re looking to improve your own interpersonal skills, meeting with a therapist may be beneficial.

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