Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be fueled by a particular agenda—or it may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought.
Why Groupthink Happens
The term “groupthink” was first introduced in the November 1971 issue of Psychology Today by psychologist Irving Janis. Janis had conducted extensive research on group decision-making under conditions of stress.
Since then, Janis and other researchers have found that in a situation that can be characterized as groupthink, individuals tend to refrain from expressing doubts and judgments or disagreeing with the consensus. In the interest of making a decision that furthers their group cause, members may also ignore ethical or moral consequences. While it is often invoked at the level of geopolitics or within business organizations, groupthink can also refer to subtler processes of social or ideological conformity, such as participating in bullying or rationalizing a poor decision being made by one's friends.
What causes groupthink?
Groups that prioritize their group identity and behave coldly toward “outsiders” may be more likely to fall victim to groupthink. Organizations in which dissent is discouraged or openly punished are similarly likely to engage in groupthink when making decisions. High stress is another root cause, as is time pressure that demands a fast decision.
Why can groupthink be dangerous?
Even in minor cases, groupthink triggers decisions that aren’t ideal or that ignore critical information. In highly consequential domains—like politics or the military—groupthink can have much worse consequences, leading groups to ignore ethics or morals, prioritize one specific goal while ignoring countless collateral consequences, or, at worst, instigate death and destruction.
GroupThink can happen when a leader punishes dissent. People may not stop thinking critically, but they will stop speaking critically.