Research psychologist Irvin Janis wrote about the effects groupthink in decision-making, making important contributions to the study of group dynamics. Notable among his books are Victims of Groupthink published in 1972.
He defined groupthink as:
the mode of thinking that persons engage in when consensus seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in group that it tends to override a realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.
These dynamics could sabotage any group, including those that go under the benign name of tribe, when it sets itself above the law and tries to protect itself at all costs. Our social nature and the need to belong prompt us to find our tribe. Businesses and brands have used assessments and quizzes to attract and segment customers. Here's an example of tribal marketing from Ducati.
But how do we keep things from turning ugly?
In studies of social clubs and other small groups, conformity pressures have frequently been observed. Whenever a member says something that sounds out of line with the group's norms, the other members at first increase their communication with the deviant.
But if they fail after repeated attempts, the amount of communication they direct toward the deviant decreases markedly. The members begin to exclude him.
[T]he more cohesive the group and the more relevant the issues to the goals of the group, the greater is the inclination of the members to reject a nonconformist.
Cohesive groups and tribes tend to reinforce their own views. The trouble begins when they reject the words of those who disagree. Groups use a variety of techniques to encourage conformity.
To help us diagnose the symptoms, Janis listed eight signs of groupthink:
1. The illusion of invulnerability ― which culturally could translate into the super hero complex, except we're not super heroes and fall prey to this illusion when we take extreme risks, ignore danger, and are overly optimistic.
2. The illusion of morality ― when we believe our decisions are morally correct while we discount or ignore ethical consequences.
3. The collective rationalization ― happens when we discredit and explain away warnings that are contrary to our belief system.
4. Out group stereotyping ― the active construction of negative stereotypes of rivals. When we say things like, “you're with us or against us,” it's a sign that we don't have substantive critiques to offer, so we take a position.
5. Pressure to conform ― is viewing opposition as disloyalty. When anyone in the group expresses an argument that goes against the group's stereotypes, illusions, or commitments they are being disloyal. The pressure to “comply or explain” puts the dissenter on the spot.
6. Self-censorship ― occurs when people start withholding their dissenting views and counter arguments. This happens because people want to preserve their place in the group and not make waves.
7. The illusion of unanimity ― is present when we perceive that everyone agrees with us, therefore it's not worth understanding an issue.
8. The appearance of mindguards ― is when some members of the group appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from averse information that might threaten the group. This is where censoring, removing and blocking happen.
Each technique contains the trap that keeps us from rational judgement and critical thinking in its name. In this environment we start looking at problems only through one lens. All information ― news, data points, stories ― is seen through the filter or prisms established by the group.
Our attention deficit compounds the problem. In an age of continuous partial attention, people prefer not to get involved with information. Involvement means commitment, and everyone is already maxed out.
But when it comes to decision-making, we want to escape groupthink and engage with filter success by becoming more diligent in developing and then recording our thinking, remembering data points, and revisiting often as we come across and actively seek new data points and conflicting information.
In organizations we can structure decision-making to reduce the odds of groupthink occurring ― for example, don't have the leader express preferences until all voices have been heard; have the leader encourage questions and pay attention to the dissenters taking their arguments seriously. They're simple things we can do in meetings that, in Janis' view, could reduce the odds of dire consequences coming from groupthink.