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Deep Thoughts About Groupthink. October 5, 2006. Brief History of Bad Decisions. Pearl Harbor: Advance warning of an attack: Military commanders received information about Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor.

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Deep Thoughts About Groupthink

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Deep Thoughts About Groupthink

October 5, 2006

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Brief History of Bad Decisions

  • Pearl Harbor:

    • Advance warning of an attack: Military commanders received information about Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor.

    • Intelligence lost contact with aircraft carriers moving toward Hawaii. Failed to send air reconnaissance which could have given warning.

    • Result: No alert was sounded until attack. Loss of 18 ships, 170 planes, 3700 lives.

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Another Bad Decision

  • The Bay of Pigs Invasion

    • 1961 Kennedy and advisors tried to overthrow Castro by supporting an invasion of Cuba with 1400 CIA trained Cuban exiles.

    • Believed that troops could retreat to mountains that were actually on the other side of the island. Troops actually deployed in a swamp and were immediately surrounded.

    • Created alliance between Cuba and USSR which gave rise to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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Groupthink Defined

  • “The mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to over-ride realistic appraisals of alternative courses of action.”

    Janis, 1971

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Symptoms of Groupthink

  • Illusion of invulnerability

    • Many believed that the Japanese would never risk attacking the US. Admiral joked about the idea right before it happened.

  • Collective rationalization

    • President Johnson’s Tuesday lunch group spent more time justifying the Vietnam war than reflecting upon and rethinking past decisions.

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Symptoms of Groupthink

  • Belief in inherent morality

    • Kennedy group knew that some cabinet members had moral reservations about invading a smaller neighboring country but these reservations were never explored.

  • Stereotyped views of out-groups

    • Kennedy group convinced themselves that Castro’s army was so weak and popular support so shallow that a single brigade could overturn the government.

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Symptoms of Groupthink

  • Direct pressure on dissenters

    • People who disagree are ridiculed. Once, when President Johnson’s assistant entered the room, the president said, “Well here comes Mr. Stop the Bombing.”

  • Self-censorship

    • Following the Bay of Pigs invasion Arthur Schlesinger said, “my feelings of guilt were tempered by the knowledge that any objection would have accomplished nothing but gain me a name as a nuisance.”

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Symptoms of Groupthink

  • Illusion of unanimity

    • Absence of dissent creates an illusion of unanimity. Everyone might disagree but everyone thinks that everyone else agrees.

  • Self-appointed ‘mindguards’

    • People who protect the leader from hearing disagreeable facts. Top NASA executive who made the decision to launch never heard the engineers’ objections.

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Signs of a Bad Decision Making Process

  • Incomplete survey of alternatives

  • Failure to examine risks of preferred choices.

  • Poor information search.

  • Selective bias in processing information at hand.

  • Failure to work out contingency plans.

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Evaluating the Theory

  • Groupthink is a hugely influential concept

  • Some have argued that it has more “heuristic” than theoretical value.

  • Is Groupthink still a useful concept?

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Illusion of invulnerability

Collective rationalization

Belief in inherent morality

Stereotyped views of out-groups

Direct pressure on dissenters


Illusion of unanimity

Self-appointed ‘mindguards’

How many symptoms does a group need to receive a groupthink “diagnosis”?

Are some symptoms more important than others?

Does a group experience some symptoms before others?

Is each symptom unique? Or, redundant?

Scrutinizing the Laundry List

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Hindsight bias?

Question: Once we know the outcome (e.g. It Blew Up!) can we then “spin” the reinterpret events to fit the theory? If a stupid decision turned out well, was it still groupthink?

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  • What types of tasks or situations might groupthink apply to? (Beyond just decision-making?). Can groupthink be applied to everyday decisions?

  • Does a group need to be under threat? Janis theorized that they do.

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  • Cohesiveness (mutual attraction for the group and its members) is central to Janis’ theory.

  • Can cohesiveness ever reduce groupthink?

    • EXAMPLE: In a cohesive group, people may be less likely to censor their opinions and more likely to dissent

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Groupthink and strong cultures

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Verdict on groupthink

  • Is groupthink a useful construct? If so, why?

  • Why has groupthink survived for so long when other theories have been forgotten?

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