The sociological theory known as groupthink was first developed by Irving Janis in 1972. Groupthink became popular almost instantly, because of its applicability to a wide variety of academic disciplines and everyday problems in politics and business. Despite its popularity however, researchers have had difficulty empirically verifying the theory. Thus, in addition to reviewing the specifics of Janis's original model, and a sample of the ways in which it has been used, the arguments of its critics will be reviewed. Most critics propose reformulations of Janis's theory, although some suggest it should be abandoned altogether.
Keywords Antecedents; Consensus-seeking; Decision Making; Group Cohesion; Groupthink; Janis, Irving; Symptoms
First introduced in 1972 by Irving Janis, groupthink is a theory that attempts to explain why groups sometimes make poor decisions. Janis was particularly interested in the practical applications of his work; indeed, much of his theory was derived from case studies of political advisory groups for four different US presidents. The immediate relevance of his theory made it an instant success and just three years after the idea was introduced, the term groupthink appeared in Webster's Dictionary, defined as "conformity to group values and ethics" (Turner & Pratkanis, 1998). Janis (1972), however, defined it a little more broadly, as, "a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action" (p. 9).
At first, the theory had great impact. As McCauley (1998) states, "The success of the groupthink model is a phenomenon worth attention in its own right" (p. 157). But what makes the success of groupthink different from the success of any other sociological theory? It is precisely because groupthink achieved this success despite a lack of evidence in support of the theory. As Paulus (1998) states, "The instant and continuing popularity of groupthink in the social psychology and organizational textbooks is a bit surprising given the relatively weak empirical basis [upon which it rests]" (p. 364). Turner and Pratkanis (1998) are a little more direct in arguing that no research has supported Janis's original hypothesized model.
As a result, many sociologists have spent as much time attempting to explain the success of Janis's theory as they have investigating the theory itself. Paulus (1998) points to the simplicity of the theory, as well as Janis's promotional efforts —its original publication in Psychology Today and the subsequent release of a film—as explanations for its widespread appeal. McCauley (1998) explains its success by describing three characteristics of the scholarly and popular audience. First and foremost, McCauley (1998) argues, groupthink satisfied the audience's hunger for applied research. Indeed, Janis's own interest in application is evident in his introduction to Victims of Groupthink. He states, "How can groupthink be prevented? In the nuclear age, perhaps all of us might justifiably feel slightly less insecure if definitive answers to this could be quickly pinned down and applied" (Janis, 1972, p. vi). Janis even left his position at Yale so that he could give his full attention to research that might help prevent nuclear war (Janis, 1986). In addition to appealing to an audience's thirst for applied research, groupthink also served two other ends after it was first introduced. It allowed people to evaluate poor decisions without placing blame on any single individual, and it helped maintain peoples' belief in the democratic ideal that group decisions should be better than individual ones (McCauley, 1998).
Whatever the reason for the popularity of groupthink, it is difficult to overlook the inherent irony in the widespread acceptance of the theory in the absence of evidence. Groupthink is a theory purporting the dangers of consensus-seeking in the absence of evidence, and yet it seems to have become a victim of the very thing it warns against. As Turner and Pratkanis (1998) conclude, "the unconditional acceptance of the groupthink phenomenon without due regard for the body of scientific evidence surrounding it leads to unthinking conformity to a theoretical standpoint that may be invalid for the majority of circumstances. This in turn leads to a spiral of ignorance and superstition that is not easily circumvented" (p. 133).
It is arguably as important to understand the way in which groupthink theory was developed as it is to understand the theory itself. Janis' interest in the idea was piqued when reading about policy decisions made by advisory groups to American presidents. Janis (1972) states, "The main theme of this book occurred to me while reading Arthur M. Schlesinger's chapters on the Bay of Pigs in A Thousand Days. How could bright, shrewd men like John F. Kennedy and his advisers be taken in by the CIA's stupid, patchwork plan? I began to wonder whether some kind of psychological contagion…had interfered with their mental alertness" (p. iii). As a result, Janis chose to develop his theory by analyzing four policy decisions that resulted in what he referred to as "fiascos." The four case studies included:
• Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1941 decision to focus on training rather than defense of Pearl Harbor, despite warnings of a possible surprise attack;
• President Truman's 1950 decision to escalate the Korean War;
• President Kennedy's 1960 decision to invade Cuba and,
• President Johnson's decision to escalate the Vietnam War.
Later, Janis added President Nixon's decision to cover up the Watergate break-in as a fifth example of groupthink; he eventually concluded that Watergate provided his best example of the phenomenon (Esser, 1998). In addition to analyzing policy decisions ending in fiascos, Janis also conducted case studies of two successful group decision-making processes—the Marshall Plan to avert economic collapse in post-war Europe and the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (Esser, 1998). Although Janis acknowledged that additional research would be needed, these case studies provided the foundation for his theory.
From these six case studies, Janis developed a tri-partite model of the groupthink phenomenon. Specifically, he identified five antecedent conditions to groupthink, eight symptoms of groupthink, and seven symptoms of defective decision making (Janis & Mann, 1977). The antecedent conditions and symptoms increase the likelihood, he argued, of a poor decision outcome. He acknowledged, however, that the link between symptoms of groupthink and poor decision outcomes is imperfect, and that successful outcomes can sometimes result from defective decisions (Janis, 1972).
Janis (1977) defined the antecedent conditions of groupthink as characteristics of the group that foster a consensus-seeking tendency. These conditions are:
• Group cohesiveness;
• Insulation of the group, especially from expert opinion;
• Directive leadership;
• Lack of methodical search and appraisal of information; and
• High stress accompanied by little hope of finding a solution other than one offered by leadership.
Of all the antecedent conditions in his model, Janis (1972) emphasized group cohesiveness most. He described it as the "central theme of my analysis" and wrote, "the more amiability and esprit de corps among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups" (p. 13).
Symptoms of Groupthink
The consensus-seeking tendency resulting from the antecedent conditions led to what Janis referred to as the symptoms of groupthink. Although Janis derived his theory from case study, he attempted to define the elements of his model in a way that would allow for more empirical study. He wrote, "In order to test generalizations about the conditions that increase the chance of groupthink, we must operationalize the concept of groupthink by describing the symptoms to which it refers. Eight main symptoms run through the case studies of historic fiascoes" (Janis, 1972, p. 197). The symptoms listed below are summarized from his original discussion
• An illusion of invulernability that increases optimism and risk-taking;
• Excessive and collective rationalization;
• Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group;
• Stereotypical views of out-group members;
• Discouragement of...
(The entire section is 3946 words.)