Sociologists have noticed an interesting trend over the past few decades. Groupthink is charged when something goes wrong, whether it’s a military failure, a technological disaster, or even an ad campaign in poor taste.
Some social scientists say groupthink is also used to explain everyday failures in health care and corporate governance.
If groupthink is so bad, why do people do it so often?
What is groupthink?
Groupthink occurs when people agree with the group’s irrational ideas. The motivation for this is usually caused by a desire to conform and maintain harmony in the group. Researchers find that there are benefits to think together as a group. What’s more, we were created to do it because it was evolutionary advantage for early humans.
Social scientists argue that groupthink is evolutionary strategy which helped early humans stay in the good graces of the tribes they relied on for food and protection. As one economist put it, conformity is a “winning evolutionary strategy” and it’s more important to “look right than be right.”
Read more: Why are emotions contagious?
Psychology of Groupthink
The instinct to get along still remains, and people continue to identify and maintain behaviors that benefit the group. As a result, group members tend to tolerate acts of self-sacrifice in order to satisfy the needs of the group or to remain in good standing with the group.
Being kicked out of a group for dissent no longer means one is at risk of running into a woolly mammoth alone. But group membership still provides people with a sense of identity, meaning and security.
Group membership is now primarily driven by disagreements about how to view a problem or proceed in a particular situation. In these cases, going along with the group consensus is a way to not rock the boat and avoid exclusion.
Read more: The psychology behind cults
Consequences of groupthink
Maintaining status within a group may benefit the individual, but social scientists have theorized that groupthink can have devastating consequences.
Psychologist Irving Janis first introduced the term “groupthink” in the early 1970s. He applied it to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to understand why the US supported a doomed attack on Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
Janis argues that groupthink is a negative consequence where a group of people make a bad decision together. He suggested that groupthink occurs among groups where people get along well and hate to disrupt harmony and cohesion by criticizing an idea or suggesting a different way forward.
Although she found that people deep in groupthink have a peacekeeping mentality, Janice also saw that they were capable of total indifference to outgroup members. They tended to distrust outsiders.
Read more: Collective behavior and why some crowds get out of control
An example of groupthink
Groupthink is common explain the failures such as the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster, when a group of NASA employees allowed the launch to proceed despite concerns about whether the shuttle’s critical O-rings could function on a cold morning.
A presidential commission examined the team’s decision-making and found major flaws consistent with groupthink. The team, for example, prioritized their group cohesion and failed to challenge each other. They also ignored the opinions of outside experts who said the weather was too cold for the launch.
The Challenger disaster was an example of when groups made the wrong decisions. But some social scientists argue that groupthink can be useful in other cases.
Read more: A Look Back at the Challenger Disaster
Benefits of working in groups
When people work together in groups, they bring their individual knowledge to the discussion, which is a form of resource pooling. Studies have found that people collectively tend to be better at coming up with a correct answer than individually working alone.
That’s why people in the game show Who wants to be a millionaire? use the ‘ask the audience’ option when they are confused about the answer. The audience was correct 91 percent of the time.
In addition to pooling resources, group discussion can compel open dialogue, which can have the advantage of challenging assumptions. People tend to bring their personal biases to decision-making, and the group majority can challenge such biases and ask a person to expand their thinking.
Read more: The secrets of cooperation
Advantages of groupthink
Groupthink also has the advantage of allowing the more timid members to offer ideas that they would not have the confidence to present if they had to present the idea alone. Getting input from people who are usually shy to talk helps broaden perspective and diversify ideas.
The benefits of groupthink do not usually show up in a group with members who are too similar to each other because they are likely to have the same ideas and biases. Thus, their dialogue is redundant and their pooling of resources does not bring innovative information.
The benefits of groupthink are also limited if people in the group are too focused on avoiding friction because they want to fit in or be liked, which is why social scientists tend to warn against the groupthink mentality. Humans innately want to be accepted by those closest to them. After all, this is a strategy that has worked for humans for thousands of years.
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