“Group Think” is no Laughing Matter

In the 1970’s the psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “group think” to explain why group pressure results in poor decisions, or, as he explained it, why groups show:

A deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgement

That is a little more erudite than the way I would put it, but the phrase describes the phenomenon beautifully.

Do you suffer from group think?

If you are a little unsure if your organisation is affected, Janis went on to document eight symptoms of “group think”, you may recognise a couple of them:

  1. A belief in team invulnerability leading to excessive optimism
  2. Ignoring warnings and not question assumptions
  3. Believing you are so morally right that the ends justifies the means
  4. Stereotyping outsiders, usually as “the enemy”.
  5. Putting people who disagree under pressure to be quiet.
  6. Self-censorship, those with doubts keep their mouths shut
  7. Unanimity, if nobody is dissenting, everybody must be agreeing.
  8. The existence of “mindguards” who protect the group’s leaders from “problematic” information

Group think is a bit of a joke.

Nobody could possibly be that stupid.


But group think is really no laughing matter

In 1978 at a settlement called “Jonestown” buried deep in the jungle in British Guyana, 912 members of the American cult “Peoples Temple” died.  Some of them were shot; some were forced to drink poison, but the vast majority committed suicide.

280 of the dead were children.

The mass suicide happened on the instruction of the cult’s leader, Jim Jones.

It is a horrific tale, how could so many people think that suicide was the right idea and shoot anybody who dissented?  All because of one influential man and a psychological phenomenon.

That is the terrifying power of group think.

The truly worrying thing is, as Scott Adams so nicely pointed out, we all suffer from group think, to one degree or another.  It is human nature.

How do you overcome human nature?

If you manage a team and are keen to avoid group think (and I kind of think you should) then there are a number of things you can do about it:

  • Appoint a Devil’s advocate
  • Don’t express your views or preferences at the start of a conversation
  • Discuss decisions with people outside the core group
  • Invite in experts to challenge your thinking

Unfortunately all of these tactics are reliant on you, as the manager, having the strength to know when to listen and keep your mouth firmly shut.

And as I know to my cost, trying to do that well is really no joke.

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Group Think

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  1. Hello James,

    Let’s take a second look at your definition: “A deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgement”.

    If I take this seriously then it occurs to me that ‘groupthink’ and it’s partner ‘doublespeak’ (they are like two sides of the coin, you find them together) are the default – the way things are, it is the game that just about everyone is playing. It really take something – being an outsider, courage, nothing to lose – to see ‘groupthink’ and ‘doublespeak’ and to rise above it.

    If we look just at ‘groupthink’ then Kuhn showed that this shows up even in the most ‘objective’ of social life, science. A community of physicists operates from a paradigm. What it sees, the problems that it works on, the equipment it uses are all functions of and related to the paradigm. And that paradigm is just like ‘groupthink’. Episodically, someone new, someone young, someone not brainwashed into ‘groupthink’ and not having build his status/income on the existing paradigm comes along and offer a radically new paradigm that better explains the most difficult problems – the ones that the old paradigm could not handle. Guess who are the new converts to this paradigm? The young scientist, those least vested in the old paradigm. And once the old guard have converted, slowly and died, then the new paradigm takes hold. And then the scientific community is once again embedded in ‘groupthink’ on the basis of this new paradigm.

    At the normal everyday human level Heidegger showed the ‘groupthink’ is the default way of our being-in-the-world. He called it ‘everydayness’, ‘the Anyone’, ‘levelling’.


    • James Lawther says:

      Your point Maz, that this is inevitable is well made. I guess what I am trying to say is how do you minimise the issue. Eradication is really not on the table.

      And yes, I suppose group think and double speak are two sides of the same coin


  2. Hi James,
    I’d like to endorse Maz’s point but also say that a lot of groupthink, for me, comes from familiarity and your final suggestion…Invite in experts to challenge your thinking….is a good one to challenge norms and assumptions. However, I would suggest that it does not have to be experts but could just be an outsider that offers a different perspective.


    • James Lawther says:

      Absolutely Adrian, the issue of course is that we inherently distrust outsiders. Which makes the problem all the worse.


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