What is a challenge that can be encountered on a regular basis involving communications between or among people, and what theory developed to explain it?
A problem encountered in everyday communications is what Yale psychology professor Irving Janis labelled “groupthink.” As Janis defined it, groupthink is “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” [See Janis’ 1982 study, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes]
"Groupthink” occurs in both social and business settings, especially if there is a dominant personality involved. In a social setting, there may be a tendency, when discussing a controversial issue, for people to agree with the most forcefully asserted opinion. Fear of appearing uninformed or wishing to avoid confrontation, even in a benign environment, can cause people to “go along” with the prevailing opinion irrespective of whether they believe differently.
In business, “groupthink” can occur in an employee reluctance to express an opinion different from those of the group’s leader, or different from the rest of the group. While “groupthink” in a social setting involves no stakes, in a business or governmental setting, it can result in catastrophic failure. The chapter in “A First Look” devoted to the understanding of “groupthink” [www.afirstlook.com/docs/groupthink.pdf] begins with an example of the ramifications of “groupthink” in a setting in which the stakes involved life-and-death decisions and the prestige of the nation: the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Challenger’s destruction soon after take-off was caused by the decision to launch in temperatures too cold for the rubber o-rings that were part of the booster rocket to function properly, thus enabling the escape of volatile gases and the resulting explosion. As the article notes:
“. . . everyone knows what happens when you pour gasoline on an open flame. What people found difficult to fathom was why NASA had launched the Challenger when there was a good reason to believe the conditions weren’t safe. In addition to the defective seal, the commission also concluded that a highly flawed decision process was an important contributing cause of the disaster. Communication, as well as combustion, was responsible for the tragedy.” [Emphasis added]
When NASA officials discussed whether the launch should occur despite colder than normal weather, the willingness of those officials to go against the advice of the o-rings manufacturer to delay the launch represented a classic case of “groupthink.” No one wanted to be the one to say “no.” The article again cites Janis on the phenomenon that undermines proper decision-making:
“The more amiability and esprit de corps among members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink. . . The social constraint consists of the members’ strong wish to preserve the harmony of the group, which inclines them to avoid creating any discordant arguments or schisms.”
Just as important a factor, though, is the presence of a manager or boss whose opinion is known and whose staff is understandably reluctant to express an opinion contrary to that of the manager. The theory of “groupthink” represented an important academic development in the study of decision-making.