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.
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
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is groupthink by Irving Janis?
Groupthink is a phenomenon that social psychologist Irving Janis first recognized in his famous 1972 study called "Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes."In researching for this study, Janis explored the psychological factors behind foreign policy decisions in the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Janis determined that behind these decisions were highly intelligent people in small, cohesive groups to adopt beliefs and biases that they assumed others of the group held.
What is groupthink in psychology?
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that happens in small groups of people. What happens is that they make a group decision without thinking critically or evaluating other options or possibilities.
What is an example of groupthink?
Many experts point to the Challenger Space Shuttle incident as an example of groupthink.
What are the 8 symptoms of groupthink?
The eight symptoms of groupthink are:
- Having the illusion that your group is invulnerable or can't be wrong
- Having the illusion that the group agrees unanimously
- Believing in the group's morality and its choices without question
- Stereotyping any opponents
- Having "mind guards" that create barriers to alternative views or negative information
- Engaging in self-censorship
Why is groupthink dangerous?
Groupthink can prevent a group from considering significant problems, some of which might cause injury or loss of life. Groupthink can also prevent the group from coming up with alternative solutions that might save lives.
Why is groupthink bad?
Short of injury and death, groupthink can still cause many problems. It prevents the group from working together efficiently and productively. It quashes the enthusiasm of anyone who wishes to disagree or present an alternative solution. And it can lead to decisions that create more problems than they solve.
What are the characteristics of groupthink?
These are the characteristics of groups that engage in groupthink:
- Lack creativity
- Make bad decisions
- No one in the group dares to disagree
- Failure to recognize the best solutions
Which of the following is a symptom of groupthink?
The symptoms of groupthink are, briefly:
- Sense of invulnerability
- Discounting or ignoring negative feedback
- Believing the group's morality is perfect beyond question
- Stereotyping opponents
- Rationalizing negative choices as a group
- Blocking opposing views within the group
- Applying pressure to anyone who disagrees
- Censoring oneself to avoid disagreeing with the group
- Believing the entire group agrees, whether they do or not
Can groupthink be positive?
Yes, but only in a limited way. Groupthink can foster group harmony and teamwork. However, if the group has to make an important decision, they will fail to make rational, informed choices.
What is the best example of groupthink?
Many psychologists consider the Vietnam War as the best example of groupthink. In this case, the government leaders directing the push for war believed that the conflict was necessary to prevent the dangers inherent in the spread of communism. They thought they were morally right, that they couldn't be wrong, and that the entire group agreed. They blocked opposition within the group, put pressure on those who disagreed, and stereotyped outsiders who opposed their decisions.
What is groupthink and how can it affect an organization?
Groupthink is a way of interacting in a group that focuses on minimizing conflict within the group. The primary goal in groupthink is to achieve consensus at any cost.
Groupthink can benefit an organization by promoting teamwork and building team spirit. But it can cause problems within an organization because of it:
- Holds back people with innovative ideas
- This prevents the group from analyzing situations thoroughly and rationally.
Thus, an organization characterized by groupthink tends to be less profitable, inefficient, and less likely to take the best route to accomplish its mission. Working in an organization where groupthink is the norm tends to be frustrating and unfulfilling.
How do you deal with groupthink?
To deal with groupthink in your organization, you can do any of the following things, preferably several of them:
- Increase the diversity of the group
- Seek and consider outside opinions and evaluations
- Allow spaces for alone time within the working environment
- Require discussion of many viewpoints before decisions are made
- Show appreciation for many different perspectives
Is groupthink always bad?
Groupthink sometimes has some positive effects, such as quick decision-making and more cohesive teamwork. However, the negatives usually outweigh the positives. While the group that practices groupthink may seem to work together well, they often make choices that have a negative impact on their goals.
How do you escape groupthink?
If you find yourself the leader of a group that tends toward groupthink, you can take the following steps:
- Demand critical evaluation of all ideas.
- Don't offer your opinions when the group discusses options.
- Create a competitive environment by dividing a larger cohesive group into smaller groups.
- Bring in an outside expert to participate in the discussion and evaluation of ideas.
- Appoint someone to be the devil's advocate to promote consideration of opposing ideas.
What causes groupthink?
Groupthink can have several causes, including:
- Extreme group cohesiveness
- Group isolation
- Overbearing group leaders
- Stress and pressure surrounding the decisions that need to be made
- The leaders haven't created a standard way of evaluating options
- The group has had significant failures after recent decisions.
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