Diverse Perspectives on the Groupthink Theory – A Literary Review
This article provides a summary of research related to the groupthink theory. The review includes case studies, experimental studies, literature reviews, example applications, and proposed modifications to the groupthink theory. Groupthink has been applied to a broad spectrum of group settings and is seen as a major factor in many poor decisions. Despite close to 40 years of the existence of the groupthink theory, experimental studies are limited with only a few of the model‘s 24 variables adequately tested. Testing limitations, and their mixed experimental results, lead to a wide diversity of perspectives regarding the model. Some conclude groupthink is no better than a myth, while others believe it is a brilliant construct. One recommendation is to address the ambiguity of the model; implementing previously proposed modifications (identified in this article) would achieve this objective. A further recommendation is to increase focus on testing groupthink prevention steps.
Groupthink, a term describing a group where ―loyalty requires each member to avoid raising controversial issues‖ (Janis, 1982, p. 12), ironically is controversial in itself with ―very little consensus among researchers on the validity of the groupthink model‖ (Park, 2000, p. 873). Despite the controversy, since it was first published over three decades ago the groupthink theory has been widely accepted (Mitchell & Eckstein, 2009, p. 164) and the groupthink phenomenon has been found to occur in a far wider range of group settings than originally envisioned (Baron, 2005, p. 219). This article summarizes the groupthink concept and provides an overview of the diversity of views regarding groupthink’s validity. Janis (1972, 1982) and over sixty scholarly peer-reviewed articles provide the basis of this literary review. Identification of the scholarly articles resulted from three approaches: (a) searching for articles in the EBSCO and ABI databases using the term groupthink, (b) identifying key articles featured in a collection of literature reviews published in recognition of the term‘s 25th anniversary (Turner & Pratkanis, 1998b), and (c) through article reference lists. This review identifies key groupthink case studies and experiments, and then follows with the various arguments for and against the groupthink concept. It reviews example applications, identifies proposed modifications to the groupthink concepts, and then concludes with recommendations.
The Groupthink Theory
Janis (1982) stated, ―groups bring out the worst as well as the best‖ (p. 3) in terms of decision-making. Janis (1972) developed the groupthink theory based on assessment of some of the worst decisions or ―fiascos‖ (p. 1). These fiascos include the Bay of Pigs, the Pearl Harbor attack, the North Korea escalation, and the Vietnam escalation. Janis tested the theory against two decisions where groupthink was absent (the Marshall plan and the Cuban missile crisis).
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2010) defined groupthink as ―a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.‖ However, for the purposes of this article, a scholarly definition is used. Janis (1982) defined groupthink as ―a mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action‖ (p. 9). Janis modeled groupthink as certain antecedent conditions, which lead to concurrence seeking (or groupthink tendency), which results in observable consequences, yielding a low probability of a successful outcome.
Janis (1982) defined these variables using examples, as listed below. Note that shorthand labels provided by Janis are shown to help distinguish between the variables (these labels are shown in parentheses following the variable name). Janis indicated there are three types of antecedent conditions: cohesion of the group (A), organizational structural faults (B1), and situational factors (B2). For organizational structural faults, Janis provided four examples: insulation of the group (B1-1), lack of impartial leadership (B1- 2), lack of methodical procedure group norms (B1-3), and homogeneity of group members (B1-4). Example situational factors include high stress from external threats (B2-1) and temporary low self-esteem (B2-2) induced by recent failures, excessive difficulties, or moral dilemmas.
For observable consequences, Janis (1982) included two categories: symptoms of groupthink (C) and symptoms of defective decision-making (D). For symptoms of groupthink, Janis listed eight symptoms grouped into three types:
- Type I, overestimation of the group, including
- illusion of invulnerability (C-1), and,
- belief in group‘s inherent morality (C-2);
- Type II, closed mindedness, including
- collective rationalization (C-3), and,
- stereotypes of out-groups (C-4);
- Type III, pressure toward uniformity, including
- self censorship (C-5),
- illusion unanimity (C-6),
- direct pressure on dissenters (C-7), and,
- self-appointed mind guards (C-8).
Janis (1982) provided seven symptoms of defective decision-making, including: incomplete survey of alternatives (D-1), incomplete survey of objectives (D-2), failure to examine risks (D-3), failure to reappraise rejected alternatives (D-4), poor information search (D5), selective bias in processing information (D-6), and failure to work out a contingency plan (D-7).
Identification of groupthink frequently only occurs after the occurrence of a problem or a fiasco. ―The paradox of groupthink is that unanimous decisions may be seen to be a display of resoluteness, when, in fact, they result from defense avoidance on the part of the individual members of the decision group‖ (Rosenthal & ‗t Hart, 1991, p. 361). Janis (1982) provided observable symptoms, allowing identification of the risk of groupthink and the opportunity to prevent.
Perhaps more important to identifying symptoms, Janis (1982) also provided nine recommendations designed to prevent groupthink from occurring (pp. 262-271). A summary of these prevention recommendations follows:
- Each member should be a critical evaluator of the group‘s course of action; an open climate of giving and accepting criticism should be encouraged by the leader.
- Leaders should be impartial and refrain from stating personal preferences at the outset of group discussion; they should limit themselves initially to fostering open inquiry.
- Establish multiple groups with different leaders to work the question in parallel.
- Split groups into subgroups to assess feasibility and effectiveness of proposals.
- Each member of the group should privately discuss current issues and options with trusted associates outside the group and report reactions.
- From time to time, bring in outside experts to challenge the views of the core members.
- There should be one or more devil‘s advocates during every group meeting.
- In conflict situations, extra time should be devoted to interpreting warning signals from rivals and to constructing alternative scenarios of their intentions.
- Reconsider the decision in second chance meetings before going public.
The Janis (1982) groupthink model includes various elements—namely, the antecedent conditions [cohesion (A), structural faults (B1), and situational factors (B2)], symptoms of groupthink (C), symptoms of defective decision-making, (D) and prevention recommendations (not labeled by Janis). The articles summarized in this review provide a scholarly contribution to understanding, improving, and/or applying at least one of the elements of the groupthink model.
The following sections provide a summary of over 60 scholarly articles written on groupthink since Janis (1972). Tables 1, 2, and 3 summarize case studies. Tables 4 and 5 summarize experimental studies. Subsequent sections cover groupthink literature reviews, applications, and modifications.
A diverse variety and growing number of case studies have applied the groupthink theory. Tables 1, 2, and 3 summarize 17 case studies covering different types of decisions for various types of groups. Some of the cases review political and military decisions similar to cases Janis (1972, 1982) evaluated, such as the Son Tay prisoner rescue attempt (Amidon, 2005). The breadth of application continues to expand. Case studies have been completed on organization decisions, such as the baseball umpire decision to strike in 1999 (Koerber & Neck, 2003), and have also assessed organization strategy (Eaton, 2001) and Worldcom‘s fraudulent behavior (Scharff, 2005). Each of the case studies reviewed found evidence of groupthink.
Most of the studies used an approach similar to that used by Janis (1972, 1982). However, Esser and Lindoerfer (1989) used a more rigorous content analysis, using quantitative coding to count the various positive and negative accounts of groupthink. Tetlock, Peterson, McGuire, Chang, and Feld (1992) used GDQS (Group dynamics Q Sort) and LISREL,
The case studies in Table 3 apply only a subset of the Janis (1982) groupthink model, the groupthink symptoms. For example, Ahlstrom and Wang (2009) completed a study using the groupthink model to assess France‘s defeat by Germany in 1940. They essentially limited their assessment to only the groupthink symptoms and did not address other elements of the groupthink theory. Nevertheless, based on redundant sources (which they used to ensure validity), Ahlstrom and Wang conclude groupthink ―contributed significantly‖ to failures of the French to prepare for Germany‘s attack (p. 173).
There are fifteen studies identified as experiments on groupthink elements. The typical study selects subjects (often students) and puts them in groups of three to six. The groups then complete some kind of decision task, usually in 20 to 40 minutes. Questionnaires are completed initially and/or after the decision task. In addition to an assessment of the outcome of the decision task, video or audio tapes of the decision meeting are analyzed. In ten of the 15 cases, a limited number of variables or elements (a subset of the model) are tested (Table 4). The remaining studies attempt to test essentially the full groupthink model (Table 5).
Well-tested variables. There are three variables in groupthink that have had a significant number of experiments: cohesion (A), insulation (B1-3), and impartial leadership (B1-2). Generally, tests of impartial leadership have consistently supported the groupthink model. As shown in Table 4, lower-power leaders (Fodor & Smith, 1982), open-leaders (Flowers, 1977), and non-directive leaders (Leana, 1985) have all been shown to facilitate option generation and discussion (measures that demonstrate the absence of groupthink). Research has found that insulation reduces decision quality (Moorhead & Montanari, 1986).
The last area, group cohesion, has had mixed results and has frequently not been found to be associated with groupthink. One reason for the mixed results is there are varying approaches to operationalizing cohesion (Hogg & Hains, 1998, p. 325), as Janis did not provide the aspects of cohesion considered. As such, experimenters have tested cohesion from a diversity of perspectives. For example, Bernthal and Insko (1993) evaluated cohesion from a social emotional perspective, whereas Hogg and Hains (1998) evaluated a friendship basis. Different still, Tetlock et al. (1992) defined cohesion as well-defined and shared goals.
Test of the full model. Table 5 lists five studies attempting to test a large portion of the model. Park (2000) conducted the most ambitious investigation, attempting to assess all 24 variables of the groupthink model (p. 873). The test assumed a sequential relationship among the elements of the model and measured the relative contribution of the various elements (p. 875). Sixty-four four-person teams completed a 50-minute decision-making exercise designed to simulate a ―complex non-routine dilemma‖ (p. 875). As noted, there was ―no real consequence‖ of the group‘s decision-making (p. 885). The study provides only partial support of Janis‘ model (p. 883), with predictions ―confirmed in only two of twenty-three cases‖ (p. 873).
Other issues. The issue of operationalizing the groupthink theory goes beyond cohesion, as most groupthink variables are not well defined. According to Moorhead and Montanari (1986), of the 24 variables, ―group cohesiveness was the only variable of which a published measure was available‖ (p. 402). Experimenters have, therefore, had to develop measures and frequently have chosen unique approaches; no consensus exists on how to operationalize antecedents and how to measure the other variables (Esser, 1998, p. 325). The lack of standardization makes it difficult to compare or combine study results.
In addition to these issues, there is difficultly orchestrating the kind of cohesive group dynamics Janis‘ (1982) model described. For example, many studies (see Tables 4 and 5) have used ad hoc groups. Ad hoc groups have limited cohesion amongst the group members (Park, 2000, p. 885).
Lastly, despite almost 40 years of existence, the Janis model (1982) has many elements with only limited experimental testing. As shown in Table 5, cohesion (A) and impartial leadership (B1-3) have had a reasonable number of tests. However, the remaining 21 variables have had limited testing. As such, testing of the model is at best inconclusive (Ahlfinger & Esser, 2001, p. 32).
Various Perspectives – For and Against
Table 6 summarizes two literary reviews of the groupthink model. These reviews provide a reasonably balanced view of the state of scholarly thinking at the time. Esser (1998) indicated that case studies have confirmed the model, but both reviews noted the lack of experimental validation of the model. The lack of conclusive evidence, either for or against, has led to a diversity of perspectives.
Despite the diversity of perspectives and the limited empirical support, the groupthink concept continues to see broad application. As can be seen on Table 7, groupthink has been applied to juries (Mitchell & Eckstein, 2009) and hockey teams (Rovio, Eskola, Kozub, Duda, & Lintunen, 2009). Ko (2005) described how Chinese culture affects groupthink. Shmidt, Zopalaski and Toole (2005) assessed the interface between strength of relationships and groupthink. Klein and Stern (2009) drew an interesting parallel between groupthink and academia.
During groupthink‘s 25th year, several articles were written regarding the status of the groupthink model. The following articles provide support for the model in addition to Esser‘s (1998) literature review. Paulus (1998) stated that the ― “model represents a brilliant construction founded in part on the existing group dynamics literature” (p. 371). Raven (1998) ― “hope[d] the work by Janis and his followers [would] sensitize policy makers and other decision groups about what they might do to counter the effects of groupthink” (p. 360). Raven further stated, ―by and large, the basic principles of groupthink theory have still held strong” (p. 359). More recently, Packer (2009) added, ―Longstanding psychological explanations refer to groupthink‖ (p. 546).
The groupthink model also has its critics. Baron (2005) stated that after many years of investigation, evidence ―has largely failed to support the formulation‘s more ambitious and controversial predictions‖ (p. 219). Henningsen, Henningsen, Eden, and Cruz (2006) added, ― “Questions can be raised as to the utility of using groupthink theory for research‖ (p. 62). Fuller and Aldag (1998) argued, ‗‗in our view, groupthink is a compelling myth. Like other myths, it tells of things that never were but always are. . . . How did we come to so widely and gladly accept it in the absence of compelling evidence?‘‘ (p. 177).
One reason some of these authors are against the groupthink model is they advocate replacing the model. For example, Aldag and Fuller (1993) proposed a comprehensive group problem solving approach. Fuller and Aldag (1998) would like researchers to ―shake off the limiting characteristics of the groupthink model‖ (p. 181). Henningsen et al. (2006) argued groupthink is two processes, a compliance process and a reinforcing process (p. 39).
Despite the diversity of perspectives and the limited empirical support, the groupthink concept continues to see broad application. As can be seen on Table 7, groupthink has been applied to juries (Mitchell & Eckstein, 2009) and hockey teams (Rovio, Eskola, Kozub, Duda, & Lintunen, 2009). Ko (2005) describes how Chinese culture affects groupthink. Shmidt, Zopalaski and Toole (2005) have assessed the interface between strength of relationships and groupthink. Klein and Stern (2009) draw an interesting parallel between groupthink and academia.
Many additional articles reference the groupthink concept; Table 7 shows a few examples. An interesting example is Maharaj‘s (2007, 2008) application of groupthink to board member roles. Maharaj suggested one characteristic of board members is whether or not they possess groupthink tendencies, indicating that board members who engage in discussion, ask probing questions, and take an independent view do not have groupthink tendencies. Maharaj advocated for board member selection and annual performance appraisals to include an assessment of groupthink tendencies.
Modifications of Groupthink
A wide array of modifications has been proposed for the groupthink model, as summarized in Table 8. Of these ten proposals, three appear constructive and operational, and five address cohesion. The next two sections summarize these proposals. The remaining three articles, Chapman (2006), Flippen (1999), and Neck and Moorhead (1995), propose incorporating additional variables into the groupthink model.
The initial section of Table 8 lists three constructive and sufficiently defined proposals, ready for application and testing. ‗t Hart‘s (1998) article characterized various types of decisions and made a case that groupthink should only be applied to ―problem solving‖ decisions and not other types of decisions (such as those driven by political factors). ‘t Hart, as well as Mohamed and Weibe (1996), advocated for adding accountability to the list of prevention steps. Rosander, Stiwne and Granstrom (1998) developed a tool for assessing groupthink tendencies.
Mohamed and Weibe (1996) advocated that groupthink is a process model. They make the argument that many of the experimental tests have failed because the researchers are assuming a causal order variance model. Other articles also support this process approach; for example, Courtright (1978) stated that Janis specifies ―a probabilistic relationship‖ versus the causal order assumed by many (see Tables 4 & 5).
It appears the assumption that groupthink is a causal ordering variance model resulted from a Janis (1982) figure that implies a causal order. However, Janis stated, ―even when some symptoms are absent, others may be so pronounced that we can expect all the unfortunate consequences‖ (p. 175). This statement supports a process versus variance approach.
Options for Addressing Cohesion
As mentioned earlier, experimental results are mixed regarding cohesion; therefore, several model adjustments have been proposed to address the cohesion issue. Baron (2005) proposed replacing social identification (a type of cohesion) with efficacy; Whyte (1998) offered a related proposal. Turner and Pratkanis (1998a) proposed incorporating a social identity maintenance model. Others suggested narrowing the definition of cohesion; for example, McCauley (1998) advocated for defining cohesion as ―friendly relations.‖ McCauley (1989) also argued to distinguish internalization from compliance testing.
Janis (1972, 1982) defined the groupthink model to describe a potential downside that groups face where conformity pressure can lead to defective decision-making. Janis specified symptoms of groupthink and steps groups can take to prevent groupthink. Researchers have completed many case studies where groupthink appears to factor into poor decisions. It appears groupthink occurs across a wide spectrum of groups. Experimental results, however, are limited and at best give mixed results. A key question is whether groupthink is a myth (Fuller & Aldag, 1998) or whether improved experimental approaches will validate the model.
Mohamed and Wiebe (1996) advocated, ―the nature of the theory is still unclear. This ambiguity represents a major barrier to theory testing‖ (p.417). Addressing this ambiguity appears to be a reasonable step. A common framework is key to moving toward experimentally validating the groupthink model. Therefore, the first recommendation is defining the theory based on the research to date; this would allow testing of the theory. The second recommendation is to address groupthink by answering the following questions: Is it a process model, as suggested by Mohamed & Wiebe (1996)? Is it a risk mitigation approach (Mitchell & Eckstein, 2009, p. 164)? What are the best instruments to measure the variables?
Turner and Pratkanis (1998c) indicated that Janis was interested in the practical significance of research (p. 104). In this vein, testing Janis‘ (1982) recommended steps to prevent groupthink should also be a priority. The scarcity of research in this area is ―startling‖ (Neck & Moorehead, 1995, p. 538).
About the Author
James D. Rose has worked in various leadership positions within a major international integrated oil and gas company for more than thirty years in many different countries. He is founder and president of the Christian Development Foundation, an organization facilitating leadership education and development, primarily in Africa. This article has been written as part of a doctoral program at the School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship at Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to James D. Rose [Email: email@example.com].
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