Groupthink is an interesting phenomenon which can occur when a group of people gathers to make a decision. Essentially, desires for group cohesiveness and a quick decision cloud the judgment of the people in the group, leading to a decision which is less than ideal. Social psychologists have studied groupthink extensively in an attempt to understand the warning signs of this phenomenon, and to develop methods for avoiding groupthink.
Irving Janis was one of the first social psychologists to delve into groupthink, publishing a study on groupthink in the context of foreign policy decisions in 1972. He argued that groupthink was probably responsible for some of the more unwise decisions made by the United States government, backing up his claim with studies of group dynamics. Many studies of groupthink focus on foreign policy, since the groups who make these kinds of decisions tend to be classically pressured and very cohesive, setting up an ideal situation for groupthink.
Several things characterize groupthink. Members of the group tend to experience illusions of unanimity, morality, and invulnerability within the group, meaning that they think everyone agrees, they are under the impression that their decisions are morally based, and they think that the decisions made within the group are always sound. Groupthink is also accompanied by self-censoring, in which members of the group stifle their opinions because they are afraid of controversy. The group often engages in heavy stereotyping of other groups and the situation they are dealing with, and there is often an immense pressure for conformity within the group.
One of the hallmarks of groupthink is collective rationalization, in which the members of the group rationalize thoughts or decisions in flawed ways. This rationalization is often supported by so-called “mindguards,” who prevent contradictory information from entering the group discussion. As the members of the group work with incomplete information, high pressure, and a desire to conform, they come up with an idea which may not be balanced and well considered, like the decision to invade another country on the basis of flimsy evidence.
There are a number of ways to avoid groupthink. Most importantly, the group must start out with no clear expectations and desires, and dissenting opinions must be encouraged, to the point of asking individual members of the group to argue against ideas as they are presented. Many organizations also break groups up into smaller committees which come back to the main group with their ideas, in the hopes of stimulating more discussion and creative ideas. In a situation where discussing decisions with people outside the group is feasible, people are encouraged to talk with people not in the group, to see whether their ideas will hold up in the outside world.