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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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brief history of bad decisions
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.
another bad decision
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.
groupthink defined
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

symptoms of groupthink
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.
symptoms of groupthink6
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.
symptoms of groupthink7
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.”
symptoms of groupthink8
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.
signs of a bad decision making process
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.
evaluating the theory
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?
scrutinizing the laundry list
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
hindsight bias
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?

  • 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.
  • 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
verdict on groupthink
Verdict on groupthink
  • Is groupthink a useful construct? If so, why?
  • Why has groupthink survived for so long when other theories have been forgotten?