Group Think

Irving Jenness



In considering how prominent groups are able to come to terrible decisions, Irving begins by asserting “Stupidity certainly is not the explanation” (p1), and instead concludes that such groups, as he has studied extensively, were “…victims of what I call “groupthink.“” (p1).  The article subsequently explores this newly introduced phenomena by its properties (so that it can be identified when present), costs and finally with a list of suggestions the author recommends adopting in order to avoid it.

As regards why group think happens, Irving concludes that it “bolsters morale” but : “at the expense of critical thinking.” (p1); “The mutual enhancement of self-esteem and morale may have functional value in enabling the members to maintain their capacity to take action, but it has maladaptive consequences insofar as concurrence-seeking tendencies interfere with critical, rational capacities and lead to serious errors of judgement.” (p5).

Irving observes the primary conditions which invite groupthink occur “when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.” (p1) and “when the members of decision-making groups become motivated to avoid being too harsh in their judgements of their leaders’ or their colleagues’ ideas.” (p1) Throughout the article, Irving stresses the subtly coercive nature of group think, compared to more normative and perhaps consciously obvious coercians. “In a cohesive group, the danger is not so much that each individual will fail to reveal his objections to what the others propose but that he will think the proposal is a good one, without attempting to carry out a careful, critical scrutiny of the pros and cons of the alternatives… When group think becomes dominant, there also is considerable suppression of deviant thoughts, but it takes the form of each person’s deciding that his misgivings are not relevant and should be set aside, that the benefit of the doubt regarding any lingering uncertainties should be given to the group consensus.”  (p2)

The author identifies eight distinct symptoms of groupthink, furnishing the reader with the means of identifying what can otherwise be a difficult phenomenon to recognise. Amongst them are ‘pressure’, whereby “victims of groupthink apply direct pressure to any individual who momentarily expresses doubts about any of the groups shared illusions or who questions the validity of the arguments supporting a policy alternative favoured by the majority.” (p6), ‘self-censorship’, “victims of groupthink avoid deviating from what appears to be group consensus; they keep silent about their misgivings and even minimize to themselves the importance of their doubts.” (p4), and ‘unanimity’, “Victims of groupthink share an illusion of unanimity within the group concerning almost all judgments expressed by members who speak in favour of the majority view.” (p4). Further to this, the author goes on to outline the damaging results, should groupthink go unchecked.  These include the group “limit(ing) its discussions to a few alternative courses of actions (often only two)“, “fail(ing) to re-examine the course of an action initially preferred by the majority after they learn of risks and drawbacks they had not considered originally” and exhibiting distinct conformation bias; “members show positive interest in facts and opinions that support their preferred policy; they tend to ignore facts and opinions that do not. ” (p5)

Finally, Irving suggests strategies that can be employed to ward off groupthink, such as “The leader… should assign the role of critical evaluator to each member, encouraging the group to give high priority to open airing of objections and doubts“, “the leader should require each member to discuss the group’s deliberations with associates in his own unit of the same organization“, “write alternative scenarios for the rivals’ intentions“, and forming separate sub-groups to deliberate independently, and then reform to share the conclusions they came to independently. (p6)



Much of what Irving writes here is now the bedrock of much facilitation theory and practice; that is, in the fifty years since he wrote this, it seems these words lead to the development of a field of management and practice, created to avoid groupthink and support better group decision-making processes.  While in this piece Irving used particular examples from Government, the Bay of Pigs is his most commonly referred to ‘fiasco’ throughout, he does insist “While I have limited my study to decision-making bodies in Government, groupthink symptoms appear in business, industry and any other field where small, cohesive groups make the decisions.” (p5), and as such I think much of this article is strongly relevant to teacher groups working collaborative circles.

In particular, I see Irving’s warning of groupthink finding fertile earth to grow in “when the members of decision-making groups become motivated to avoid being too harsh in their judgments of their leaders’ or their colleagues’ ideas.” in conjunction with Robert Evans observations that the nature  of teaching makes teachers empathic, caring and sensitive to the feelings of others (and also the tremendous anxiety induced through consistent, extended professional isolation) tends to make them particularly uncomfortable with harshly criticising their peers.  That is, looking at these two observations simultaneously suggests teacher groups may be uniquely vulnerable to groupthink.

Building on this further, most modern theorists who work in the field of facilitation and management of leader groups in complex fields, such as Claxton and Garvey-Berger, repeatedly stress the necessity of diversity of opinion as the strongest correlator for group intelligence, and in relation to Irving’s observation of what he considers ‘fiasco’s of governance, it is perhaps little wonder then that these catastrophes resulted where groupthink (the precise opposite situation to diversity of opinion) was most present.  Where diversity is intelligence, groupthink is stupidity.  As such I feel it will be of pivotal importance for teachers, or indeed any would-be collaborators, to know the meaning and symptoms of groupthink intimately, and to recognise it as the culture wherein terrible decisions can be easily made by clever people.



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