Groupthink – a cognitive distortion worth thinking about

Posted : July 10th, 2013

In “the art of thinking clearly” Rolf Dobelli outlines the situation where a group of smart people make reckless decisions because everyone aligns their opinions with the supposed consensus. This is called groupthink and may be seen as a special branch of social proof (to be written about at a later stage).

The interesting thing about this cognitive distortion is that in all likelihood each member of the group may well not have agreed with the particular decision had they been consulted on an individual basis. Research shows that in many cases they do not actually agree with the decision as it is being voted on, but peer pressure ensures that they do not speak out against it within the group. Setting.

Investigation into this phenomenon by Professor Irving Janis highlights a number of factors that contribute to groupthink, which are especially prevalent in close-knit groups or groups that are together for a short period for a particular purpose. Apparently, team spirit in these types of groups is cultivated by the unconscious development of a number of illusions or fantasies.

One of these is a sense of invincibility, whereby if the group leader seems to be fully convinced then luck will be on our side and the plan will work.

Another is the illusion of unanimity whereby if the rest of the group agree with the leader, then it must be me who is wrong.

Finally there is the illusion that you will be excluded from the group for dissention.

For anyone interested, the Kennedy administrations failed invasion of Cuba is the example used by Dobelli for an illustration of groupthink.

As everyone in the group is engaged in similar thinking patterns, groupthink is formed.

Marie Murray writing in the Irish Independent on Saturday July 6th 2013 also makes some interesting points about groupthink, also citing Professor Irving Janis as a source.

She opines that groupthink was a factor behind the disastrous lending decisions made by financial institutions that led to the current recession, and there is definite merit in this.

Interestingly Marie makes a point that groupthink may now be being used as an excuse for such poor actions and decisions.

Like Dobelli she cites that members of a group will do anything to remain part of the group and will agree with and continue to agree with poor decisions even though they know better. Loyalty to the group is everything.

A worrying by-product of groupthink is that when faced with evidence that is contrary to the decisions that the group have made, the phenomena gets stronger as the group closes ranks to defend their position – there is now an enemy to the group and this is unacceptable.

Groupthink poses some very interesting questions for any of us that are part of or influence groups in any way, personally or professionally.

For leaders, knowledge of it may help them to encourage differing opinions in teams or to take conscious action to ensure that teams are formed deliberately using any of the numerous personality profile systems available. Leaders should always remain conscious as to whether groupthink is leading a meeting of if the leader is.

Leaders may deliberately task a particular team member to be a dissenter to generate debate. Or perhaps limit the amount of time that a team can remain together to avoid groupthink forming.

As a team member all of us may find it useful to remain conscious as to whether groupthink is beginning to influence the direction the team is going.

Currently it is refreshing to hear dissenting voices in our government, as this shows that these people are not succumbing to groupthink, and are willing to risk exclusion for their opinions.

So what do we need to guard against bearing groupthink in mind? One important thing is never to be in a situation when looking back on a decision with hindsight and saying “well, I was going to say…but…” Take the decision to speak up – remember that groupthink is based on illusions.

In any case, being aware that this is a well researched and real psychological phenomena may be useful to anyone reading this article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *