Tag: group psychology

How to Recognize and Avoid Groupthink Psychology

Groupthink psychology happens when close-knit groups ignore or suppress opposing views and inconvenient facts.  It can lead to catastrophic failures in organizations large and small.  Know the signs and adopt solutions to avoid groupthink psychology.

“How could we have been so stupid?” That striking John F. Kennedy’s quotation opens Irving Janis’ Psychology Today article entitled “Groupthink” which coined the phrase in 1971.  Kennedy was reflecting on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which Janis examined as an example of the newly named phenomenon. (A pdf version of Janis’ original article can be found at this link.)

Groupthink psychology happens when group members seek consensus while ignoring or suppressing opposing views and contrary facts. The results of groupthink can be found in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the collapse of Enron, and the 2008 financial crisis, among many other examples.

Groupthink psychology robs group members of their judgment and independence, whether in the White House or the conference room down the hall. This article will examine the causes of groupthink and consider solutions for organizations large and small.

Causes of groupthink psychology

Groupthink psychology grows from the desire of individuals to conform and show loyalty to their group. It is more likely to take hold when a group becomes cohesive and the members feel accepted. In that situation, group members are less willing to challenge each other, or “rock the boat.”  

These are some of the contributors to groupthink psychology:

  1. Sense of invulnerability: Groups with an inflated sense of importance (like Enron’s “smartest guys in the room”) are willing to take exceptional risks while ignoring obvious dangers.  
  1. Rationalizing: Group members rationalize away objections, including their own, to justify the group’s course of action. The group avoids examining assumptions or taking criticism seriously.
  1. Belief in the group: Group members believe in the “rightness” of the group and its mission. Belief in the group causes members to lose sight of their own ethics and morality.
  1. Stereotyping: Group members see competitors in simplistic ways. The group sees itself as the best, the smartest, the most moral, while seeing the competition as weak, immoral, or untrustworthy.
  1. Pressure to conform:  Group members put pressure on those who express doubts about the group’s decision. Pressure adds personal cost to dissent and reinforces the need to support the group.
  1. Self-censorship:  Group members defer to what they believe is the group consensus. They keep silent about, or minimize, their own doubts. 
  1. Illusion of consensus: Group members feel an illusion of consensus – that everyone supports the decision. The illusion is the result of pressure to conform and the failure to consider consequences and alternatives.
  1. Gatekeepers: Group members appoint themselves gatekeepers to “protect” others from receiving information that could cast doubt on the group’s decision.  

The results of groupthink psychology are often disastrous – and yet the same mistakes happen again and again: Groups limit discussion to a few options – often just two, according to Irving Janis. They fail to re-examine decisions in light of new facts, or to consider ways of improving rejected options.  They fall into confirmation bias – only seeking out information that supports their decision.  

Strategies to avoid groupthink psychology

The most important takeaway is that groupthink psychology can happen to anyone, even the best and brightest. The desire to fit in is a powerful force. The best way to overcome it is to ensure there are safeguards in place. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Play devil’s advocate:  Assign one or more group members to play “devil’s advocate” and critique the solutions proposed. Requiring objections will make it safer for members to speak up.
  1. Challenge the status quo: Give every idea a hearing, even if it seems wrong or is ultimately rejected.  A good way to hear different points of view is to include people of different ages and backgrounds. Rewarding risk-taking is another way to encourage thinking differently or “outside of the box.”
  1. Divide into teams: Have members of the group work separately to analyze the issues. Teams can either propose competing solutions or work independently on different pieces of the puzzle.  
  1. Keep leadership impartial:  Members are more likely to “go with the flow” when leaders express a preference for one solution. To avoid bias, make the leader a facilitator who encourages discussion.
  1. Adopt placeholder solutions:  An approach reported in the Harvard Business Review saw the team adopt a “placeholder” to revisit and examine. Agreeing to explore the idea relieved pressure to find the “best” solution prematurely. It also allowed members to agree on broad principles while disagreeing about details.  

Groupthink psychology can derail the decision-making process. To make sure your organization doesn’t fall into its trap, be aware of the causes and make a plan of action. If you would like to learn more about groupthink psychology, leadership, and team dynamics, please contact us.


Rachel Burr is an executive and leadership coach with over 20 years of experience working with CEOs and the C-suite across all industries, in organizations of from 20 to 10,000 employees. Rachel holds dual master’s degrees in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology, and numerous certifications in the field of executive coaching. Rachel is a “people expert” who works with clients to unleash their leadership potential.