GROUPTHINK THEORY COMM410 As people, when confronted with a problem where a solution must be found, our ideal situation is to come up with the best possible one. To do this, we ideally gather the most knowledgeable, intelligent individuals into a group and attempt to derive the best solution to the problem. With the collection of these people, one would think that finding the best possible answer to the problem would be a rather simple task. However, what has happened in many situations is the complete opposite.
Rather than finding the best possible solutions, many ideal, cohesive groups arrive at the worst possible answer largely due to problems in communication within the group. This is what we call the radical theory of ‘groupthink’. When groupthink occurs, it can lead to poor decision-making and lack of creativity and as a result, lead to severe consequences. It is important that groups be aware of the symptoms of groupthink in order reduce the chances of negative outcomes.
Groupthink is defined as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action” (Irving Janis, 1972). More simply put, groups who are affected by groupthink ignore other alternatives. Together, the members try and minimize conflict, thereby reaching consensus, without truly analyzing, studying and evaluating different ideas. In search of group cohesiveness, things such as individuality and creativity tend to disappear into the crowd.
Rather than bringing new and different ideas to the table, group members avoid giving an opinion that would be considered to rest outside of the group’s comfort zone. “What’s really angering about instructions of this sort is that they imply there’s only one way to put this rotisserie together – their way. And that presumption wipes out all the creativity. Actually there are hundreds of ways to put the rotisserie together and when they make you follow just one way without showing you the overall problem, the instructions become hard to follow in such a way as not to make mistakes.
You lose the feeling for the work” (Pirsig, 166). When seeking solutions to a problem, there can be hundreds of possible ways to solve it. However, because of the lack of creativity, individuality and conflict that arises due to groupthink, only one of those solutions is seriously taken into consideration. Unfortunately, the final solution is not always the best one. In 1972, Yale psychologist Irving Janis attended a seminar on small groups at Yale University. After reading about the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Janis was troubled at the idea that a group of intelligent, well-educated individuals, who included John F.
Kennedy and his advisors, allowed themselves to create such a plan. Later on, Irving Janis studied significant events; such as the failure to protect Pearl Harbor, in order to further investigate the topic of groupthink. Decision-making can be seen all around us. Whether it is in the business world or deciding what to make for dinner, we are forced to make choices. Typically, making decisions follows a 6-step process. The steps involved in making a decision are as follows: • Identify the problem or opportunity • Gather relevant information • Develop as many alternatives as possible Evaluate alternatives to decide which is best • Decide on and implement the best alternative • Follow-up on the decision We must keep in mind, however, that making an individual decision is much different than making one in groups. With group decision-making comes social interaction and social, psychological and contextual influences. These things alone call for many advantages and disadvantages, one advantage being that there are more opinions and more input because of the number of people. Therefore, more solutions to the initial problem(s) can be generated.
With this, however, comes a major disadvantage. When making a group decision, majority of groups must agree with the final solution. With the potential of having many opinions within the group, it can be difficult and time costly to ultimately reach a consensus. As individuals, we are all rhetoricians and have different methods of communication. When it comes to discussing our opinions and persuading group members of our ideas, arguments are sometimes created because of the diversity within the group. What matters is whether the argument is productive or not. While there are many unproductive arguments, others generate some of the most creative joint thinking we ever achieve together” (Mercer, 74). Unfortunately, in the case of groupthink, arguments tend to be avoided at all costs. Groupthink theory often occurs without the group’s realization. Irving Janis formed 8 different symptoms that indicate groupthink. The first of these symptoms is illusions of vulnerability. This occurs when members of the group are overly optimistic and believe that nothing negative will arise from their decision.
Janis describes it as taking great risks and acquiring the attitude of “everything is going to be OK, because we are a special group”. Secondly we have belief in inherent morality. This symptom is characterized as the groups thought that they could do no wrong. They believe that they have high morality, that they are right in all situations and they ignore the ethical consequences that could arise because of their decisions. As the third symptom we have collective rationalization.
This occurs when the group is convinced that nothing can go wrong with the plan with which they have decided to go even if there is sufficient evidence that proposes the complete opposite. The fourth symptom is stereotyped views of out-groups. Members within the group tend to have negative stereotypes of people and groups that are not part of their assembly. This causes the in-group members to disregard what the out-groups have to say which usually causes a lack of creativity. Next we have direct pressure on dissenters, or, direct pressure for conformity.
With this symptom, members are discouraged to express any argument about the group’s stereotype and/or commitments, or else this is seen as disloyalty on the part of that particular member’s. The sixth symptom is known as self-censorship. Because groups who experience groupthink are very judgmental and discourage any argument about what the group does, group members will not share their ideas because of the fear of being rejected. These members censor themselves and withhold any criticism or opinion that they may have. Following self-censorship comes illusion of unanimity.
In groups, members look to each other to confirm their ideas. This symptom occurs when a member falsely believes that silence in a meeting means that everyone agrees with the decision. Lastly we have self-appointed ‘mind guards’. Sometimes, certain members will appoint themselves as protectors of the group and even the leader from the outside that could potentially ruin the group’s cohesiveness. Ultimately, groups want to avoid all of these symptoms in order to avoid a potentially disastrous result. One may ask, however, how is this possible?
First of all, it is very difficult to avoid groupthink because as individuals, we tend to choose group members who are like-mind and tend to filter out those who aren’t. This is the concept of ‘Kin’, which is mentioned in Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. As individuals, we have familiarity towards people that we feel connected to and who have a similar state of mind. We do this because we try to avoid conflict within the group. Contrary to popular belief, conflict can be positive. According to Mercer, “ language is a weapon in battles between competing explanations, theories, and ideologies” (Mercer, 13).
Self-censorship, direct pressure for conformity and illusion of unanimity involve silence in order to avoid conflict within the group. Certain amounts of conflict and battles are crucial in a group in order to be successful. If the members of the group have opposing views and/or opinions, it is very important that they are voiced in order to achieve optimum results. Diversity in a group is extremely important and conflict may prove this diversity. There have been several different rules and/or guidelines that have been created in order to avoid groups avoid groupthink.
To The first rule to avoid groupthink is to assign a group member the role of Devil’s Advocate. When the group makes decisions, this person should offer as much criticism and ask as many questions as possible without resentment from the other group members. Another option is to get opinions or reactions from people who are trusted and who are outside of the group, or even invite the group to meet in different settings and surroundings. Doing this can help prevent group isolation, and a change in surroundings can offer different stimulants to the members of the group.
Next, the leader must accept criticism of his/her opinion and encourage open expression of doubt. Group decisions of great importance and quality have never been made through intimidation by the leader. If a leader is intimidating, members will be reluctant to speak up because of the fear of getting attacked. Those leaders who encourage participation and help members reach their full potential seem to be the most successful. The development of disagreement within a group is key when trying to avoid groupthink.
Therefore, if the leader is open to criticism and different opinions, members will be more willing to speak their minds. Another option to avoid groupthink is to develop scenarios that will create templates for discussions. These scenarios will make the members think about the logic in selecting certain options, the judgments made, if there are problems remaining in the preliminary option, and if the preliminary option can be improved in any type of way. Finally, two more options to help avoid groupthink are to have members with higher status give their opinions last and/or periodically divide the group into subgroups.
In Pirsigs “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, one of Phaedrus’ students, more specifically describe as his “dull student”, was having difficulty writing a paper because she was unable to recall anything that she had heard was worth repeating. “She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing” (Pirsig, 192).
Phaedrus recommended breaking the topic down in to small pieces, like breaking a wall down brick by brick. Breaking the topic into down to smaller and smaller portions helped this student think for herself and she was able to further understand the topic. Breaking a situation down and breaking the group down into subgroups can help the group members express their opinions and help them think for themselves. As one will notice, the majority, if not all the avoidance methods, encourages increased discussion. Whether it is criticism, out-group opinions, or disagreement, there is increased communication within the group.
Niel Mercer describes three types of talk that occur with collaborative works. These types are cumulative, dispositional or exploratory. In trying to prevent groupthink, groups will exercise both cumulative and exploratory talk. Cumulative talk is described as the group members constructively building on each other’s ideas and opinions in an uncritical fashion. Exploratory talk involves a certain amount of constructive-criticism, and reasons for opposition and alternatives are always stated. In both of these types, parties are ultimately searching a joint goal (Mercer, 97-98).
Unfortunately, symptoms of groupthink are not always recognized thereby creating the inability to attempt any of the mentioned options above. Because of this, the group decisions can lead to negative consequences. In 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle departed form the Kennedy Space Center. As many will remember, very shortly after the take-off, the ship burst into flames in front of millions Americans. After the many testimonies of individuals who were involved with the mission, it was very difficult for people to understand why NASA approved the launch of the ship with unsafe conditions.
The day prior to the launch, engineers from Morton Thiokol warned NASA that this mission was not safe due to the weather conditions forecasted for the morning of the launch. The O-rings in the ship had never been tested below a certain temperature. According to the engineers, failure of these components of the ship would prove fatal to the mission. Regardless of these warnings, NASA convinced Morton Thiokol to reverse their “no-go” decision. We are now faced with the question of why the engineers and NASA employees, or, as one would call the “experts”, would allow something like this to happen.
When exploring this situation, observations conclude that this group experienced symptoms such as illusions of invulnerability, direct pressure, illusions of unanimity, collective rationalization and self-censorship on the part of the engineers. The most important of these symptoms in this case, and in many cases, is self-censorship. In Neil Mercer’s “Words and Minds”, Mercer explains the term “performatives”. These are words used in order to get things done. In the case of the engineers of Morton Thiokol, they did not exercise effective use of rhetoric and these performatives to persuade the NASA employees otherwise.
Rather than censoring themselves, they should have stated their opinions, or used these performatives, in order to not only save millions of dollars, but also saved the lives of 7 different astronauts. Prior to this mission, the Challenger Space Shuttle had successfully flown and returned 19 times. “Our job isn’t to run around like Chicken Little hollering the sky is falling, it’s to keep that shuttle flying”. (Groupthink – 2nd Edition). Each time, the temperature was not low enough to affect the O-rings of the ship. Unfortunately, this time the temperature was a factor.
In this case, the NASA employee’s inability to think laterally and realize that things change with time, truly affected the result of this mission. Their decision to launch this ship the 19 previous times was right at the time. However, conditions are not always constant. The decision to make the 20th and final launch may have seemed right hours before, however, the NASA’s employees inability to think laterally and outside the box was only one of the contributing factors to this disaster. “Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.
We were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking, and thinking from a completely different dimension” (Pirsig, 55). All NASA employees and Morton Thiokol employees were talking, thinking, looking, and seeing the same thing. However, all of these things were done in a different context. The engineers were concerned about the lives at hand while the NASA employees’ concerns were more directed to continuing the launching successes of the ship.
It is important that we always encourage viewing things from other’s perspectives. We must keep in mind that groupthink is not only seen in an organizational or business context, it is also seen in everyday life. The majority of individuals have found themselves in a position, at one time or another, where the group silences them because of fear of rejection or intimidation. Very recently, on October 24th, 2009, a 15 year-old female was raped in a back alley outside of a school dance at Richmond High in Richmond California. At first glance, one might see this as a regular rape case.
However, it is the complete opposite. This young woman was raped by not only 1, but 6 male teenagers while approximately 10 others watched. Although this case may not be identified precisely as groupthink, there are many characteristics and symptoms that are easily identifiable. Firstly, this case was characterized as a ‘gang-rape’. If one were to define “gang”, the several definitions that could involve one key word. This word is ‘group’. This group of young gentlemen joined together and performed very disturbing acts towards this young woman.
This group experienced five out of the eight symptoms that were identified at the beginning of this paper. The young gentlemen who were involved in this act clearly ignored the obvious dangers and risks going into this situation (illusions of vulnerability), they believed they were doing no wrong and ignored the possible ethical consequences of their decisions (inherent morality) and they believed that nothing would come of their decisions to rape this girl even though there is sufficient evidence in the news and elsewhere that rape is a very serious offense (collective rationalization).
Members who were involved also may have felt pressured to take part in or continue the acts once they started because of the possible mockery and disrespect on the part of the other members or the 10 other individuals watching (direct pressure for conformity). Finally, those members who thought what they were doing was wrong did not speak up and withheld their views because of the possibility of being rejected by the group (self-censorship). Even though the members were not looking for a solution to a specific problem, the decisions that they made as a group and the choices they made were definitely ones with a disastrous result.
Rather than staying and doing what they did to this young woman, they could have evaluated other alternatives and preserved no only the girls well being, but also their own. As disturbing as this may sound, concurrence was searched for by the group. The group agreed on how and where they performed this act. Without concurrence and cohesion, this group of people would not have done this to this poor young lady. When confronted with a problem, we ideally want to find the best possible solution. Even if the group includes members who are intelligent and knowledgeable, the decisions made are not always the best ones.
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