Irving Janis: His Work

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated October 10, 2023by 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, he 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 is 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. He then began working as a researcher, primarily studying psychological distress and personal decision-making. Later, Janis began studying group decision-making—especially as it relates to political psychology—and eventually published his groundbreaking book, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, in 1972. He retired from Yale University in 1985, and in 1986 he was made Adjunt Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of California. His involvement in groupthink research continued until his death in 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, they 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 Happens

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 collectively 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 sharpening 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. He 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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