Beware - groupthink

"Groupthink refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures." - Irving Janis

Thank you for joining me for another blog (#36), highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

We are currently exploring group dynamics and how that impacts decision-making. Today's question is ‘How does Groupthink come about?’. We have spoken about incentives which is rewarding the right behaviour, but group dynamics is complicated further by social matters.

What is Groupthink?

Groupthink occurs when decisions are influenced by a group dynamic that hampers fresh critical thinking. It can create an environment for serious lapses in judgment and fraud.

Groupthink examples are usually given in historic events such as the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba and Enron-Arthur Anderson scandal. Groupthink is a serious failure of leadership.

Why does groupthink happen?

Groupthink happens because i) the dynamics of the group do not encourage independent thought, and ii) people within the group see the world too similarly and therefore suffer from the same blindspots.

The best example of how group dynamics influence decision-making I could find is the mass study by a Harvard law professor on Democrat/Republican judges. The particular investigation he conducted was on Appellate court panels which have 3 random selected judges. Any combination of judges from 3 Democrats, a mix, or 3 Republicans was possible. The study encompassed 6,000 appeals (and therefore 3x that amount of votes).

The results were stark. Generally, Democrat judges are more likely to vote for plaintiffs than republicans. Democrat judges overall had a 43% chance of voting for the plaintiff but only voted for the plaintiffs 10% of the time when sitting with 2 Republican appointees. Republican judges overall voted 20% of the time for the plaintiffs but voted 42% of the time when seated with 2 Democratic appointees.

This is a stunning result and underlines the point that group settings matter even for experts whose role it is to provide independent views.

Red flags for groupthink?

Groupthink is more common in certain settings than other. Irving Janis (whose quote I used at the start) highlighted some red flags for groupthink. Groupthink is more likely when:

1) Unity/loyalty is a quality highly valued within the group

2) The group does not properly consider outside sources of information

3) There is a flimsy process to get information and weigh it up

4) Leaders speak first

5) The group has very similar backgrounds

6) Stress levels are higher

These conditions are much more likely to occur in politics, religion and scientific communities (yes even scientists often form communities around competing theories).

There are a number of symptoms of groupthink that include i) group overconfidence ii) mind-bending rationales iii) retreating away from explanations and using moral reasoning as the justification iv) branding people who oppose the plan as 'morons' / 'weak' / 'traitors' v) pressuring of members to stay quiet about concerns.

A polarised political climate is littered with examples of each of these symptoms and as the divides widen, the lack of critical thinking increases and exposure to new information from the broader landscape dwindles. This results in some wacky policies.

Beware of unanimity

Although this point will be discussed in a coming blog, do not be reassured by unanimous agreement. Whilst decisions can be obvious and people can independently come up with the same answer, frequent unanimity on complex issues is a red flag.

So What?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Groupthink happens when the composition of the team or group dynamics do not yield critical thinking.

2) We see evidence of groupthink where some of the most important decisions occur - in governments, boardrooms and in community hubs

3) Whilst creating unity and consensus is important in getting things done, they might be barriers to making good decisions in the first place.

Before we go, a big thank you to Amit Sinha our competition winner from last week. His tips were so thorough that he made an article in response to Make. Meetings. Better. ( You can find his article here (Better meetings | LinkedIn).

Thank you for joining. Next week – 'Persuasion 101'.

Group dynamics and decision-making back catalogue

1) Make. Meetings. Better. (

2) 3 pillars of bad incentives (

3) Broad incentives (

4) Wisdom in crowds (