Groupthink: when collective decisions go wrong

Despite the best intentions, a group of people make unwise decisions because of a collective desire to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions. In striving for conformity, there can be a loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. This phenomenon is called “groupthink”.

Here is a personal example. When arranging to meet up with friends for dinner recently, everyone proclaimed to be happy to make a flexible and spontaneous restaurant choice on the night we met. With our party collectively agreeing to not make a reservation, on our arrival in the food quarter every restaurant was full, and we couldn’t find anywhere to eat. If one person had suggested that we make a table booking beforehand, this situation could have been avoided. But nobody said anything.

This was not a big deal, but groupthink can lead to harmful business decisions, as well as impacting your personal life. Fortunately, this phenomenon can be managed with some simple strategies.

The science of collective decisions

The term groupthink was first coined in 1952 by William H. Whyte Jr, with most of the initial research carried out by Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University. Theories of social conformity and social influence suggest that as humans, we are often averse to acting contrary to the trend of a group. Going against the grain can induce fear that our opinion might be wrong, or that we will incite conflict or even be rejected by the group.

In 1998, researchers Marlene Turner and Anthony Pratkanis evaluated the research around groupthink theory. They found that it is most likely to occur within groups that are highly cohesive, especially if there is a strong leader, high levels of stress within the group, and low self-esteem within members. These conditions reduce the chance that a group will find a better solution to a problem than the one presented by influential group members.

In another paper published by Turner and Pratkanis, it was highlighted that groupthink serves as an attempt to protect a collective identity by helping to maintain positive social characteristics. This may be especially true when the group feels under threat.

Rather than share alternative views, the group effort is directed towards “maintaining a shared positive view of the functioning of the group”. This is achieved by ensuring consensus at all times, regardless of how sensible the decision is.

However, as Dr Paul Hart argued, a group that’s caught up in groupthink may fail to notice important events, ignore serious threats, and disregard potential alternative actions. With a breakdown in group communication, and the desire for group harmony prioritized over rational decision making, dysfunctional outcomes can occur. According to Hart’s research, “groupthink, in short, is a recipe for policy fiascoes.”

In short, groupthink can impact rational collective thinking, leading to poor decision making. The desire for a collective identity within the group can stifle independent thinking, with life-changing consequences.

How to avoid groupthink

When making collective decisions, there are some strategies that can be employed to avoid groupthink and its associated risks.

Rather than accepting group conformity, it’s helpful to challenge the status quo. Assign one or two people in the group to play “devil’s advocate” and encourage them to interject with potential pitfalls and alternative solutions. Incorporating this specific role into the group will ensure other options are always raised and explored.

When an idea is first raised, treat it as a transitional placeholder rather than a final decision. A group leader should refrain from offering ideas that may inadvertently sway others too early in the process. Instead, aim for the remaining group members to generate multiple ideas in the early stages of planning to avoid unnecessary conformity.

It’s also helpful to proactively foster psychological safety during discussions. Irrational decisions based on the desire to conform can be avoided when group members have the freedom to think creatively without fear of ridicule. When individuals feel comfortable sharing unfiltered thoughts, a far greater breadth of ideas can be deliberated. 

Ensure those who think innovatively are rewarded, even if another plan is eventually followed. Offering the opportunity to make suggestions anonymously can help contributors feel safer.

Once a range of ideas has been voiced, encourage people to think critically and ask questions about the options. Invite an outsider to consider the possible options for objectivity and to mitigate the risk of the wrong decision being made due to group cohesion, low self-esteem or a strong leader.

Groupthink can be responsible for collective decisions that are irrational, risky or even illegal. In a group setting in which cohesion and a positive social opinion of the group are highly valued, members put a lot of energy into ensuring harmony within the group.

However, this form of mismanaged agreement is avoidable when group members can safely share their creativity, explore the pros and cons of various options, and seek objective opinions. If you’re in a position of leadership, make sure to encourage your group members to share their ideas — even if they don’t align with yours!

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