In 2008, the United States experienced one of the worst economic disasters in its history. Years of speculation in the U.S. housing market, combined with loose lending practices and risky trading, set off a record number of home foreclosures. In response, stocks suddenly tanked and over-leveraged banks failed. When the chaos finally subsided, people began asking how such a thing could have happened. Why did banks assume so much risk? Why were unqualified borrowers granted large mortgages? How could Wall Street’s brightest minds trade on financial products they themselves couldn’t understand?
Some of the answers may be found in groupthink theory. The term “groupthink,” defined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, refers to how cohesive groups of people make and justify faulty decisions. People affected by groupthink usually feel pressured to conform to the views expressed by an influential group leader. They hesitate to voice concerns for fear of being shamed or ostracized, and, in the absence of dissent, they assume all other group members approve of the decisions being made. Alternatives to the group’s actions are either dismissed or never considered at all. Outsiders who raise objections are often regarded as enemies and dehumanized. Groupthinking most often arises in homogenous, insulated groups that possess no clear guidelines for decision making.
Janis’s research uncovered eight symptoms that indicate groupthinking:
1. Illusion of Invulnerability – The group believes failure is impossible.
2. Collective Rationalization – Group members invent reasons to ignore warnings and refuse to objectively evaluate their stance on an issue.
3. Inherent Morality – The group assumes all its actions are ethical and beneficial.
4. Stereotyping – The group creates negative views of opposing groups to avoid rationally addressing objections to its activities.
5. Direct Pressure to Conform – Members are discouraged from dissenting.
6. Self-Censorship – Members willingly refrain from expressing doubts or objections.
7. Illusion of Unanimity – Because dissent is never voiced, members assume everyone in the group agrees with the decisions made.
8. Mind Guards – Some members voluntarily act to shield the group from dissent or criticism.
When groupthink occurs, creativity, mental efficiency and moral judgment become impaired. Objectivity suffers. Group members refuse to fully assess risks and reject expert advice. Once alternatives are discarded, they are not reevaluated. Only information that supports the group’s viewpoint is discussed and accepted. Since the group believes it is immune to failure, it refrains from making contingency plans.
Many symptoms of groupthink can be seen in the events that lead up to the 2008 financial crisis. Wall Street CEOs believed their companies were too big and profitable to fail. Investors trusted portfolio managers who said credit default swaps based on risky mortgages would result in guaranteed returns. Unprecedented levels of leveraging were rationalized in light of soaring stock prices and wide profit margins. Bankers and homeowners assumed the housing boom would continue indefinitely, leading many people to sign for mortgages they could barely afford. Economists, accountants and regulators who expressed concerns about the situation were effectively threatened, marginalized or ignored.
Other famous examples of groupthink can be found throughout history. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved a CIA plan to invade Cuba and overthrow its leader, Fidel Castro. Kennedy’s belief in the infallibility of the mission and its organizers resulted in troops being inadequately equipped for combat. Members of Kennedy’s administration who disagreed with the mission failed to speak up. The event, known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, ended in disaster.
Similar circumstances contributed to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Eager to launch the shuttle on schedule, NASA managers ignored warnings about launching in low temperatures. They also knew of a flaw in the shuttle’s O-rings but did nothing about it. Engineers who first opposed the launch for safety reasons later assented. Seventy-three seconds after the shuttle took off, it burst into pieces, killing all seven of its crew members.
Whether a group will succumb to groupthink depends on the norms the group establishes for decision making. Groups that refrain from promoting a single agenda, encourage members to share their concerns, allow independent evaluation, seek expert input and feedback, critically weigh all alternatives and develop contingency plans can avoid and even correct groupthink. Those that lack impartial leadership, good decision-making methods and external input, on the other hand, are highly susceptible to groupthink. High-stress situations, such as those involving external threats or moral dilemmas, can also lead to groupthinking.
Despite the applicability and popularity of groupthink theory, however, few studies have been done on the subject. A clear methodology for evaluating groupthink has not yet emerged due to all the variables involved. Groupthink research is highly subjective, and researchers who observe group decision making often disagree on when or why groupthink occurs. Some of the studies done have lead to conflicting conclusions about which factors are most predictive of groupthink. Nevertheless, groupthink remains an important theory of communication, because it shows how communication can break down under social pressure.