What Is Groupthink? (Cognitive Bias)

Groupthink

Easy Definition of Groupthink: Don't keep your views to yourself just to maintain harmony in the group. That leads to Groupthink.

Geeky Definition of Groupthink: Groupthink occurs when decisions are made due to the unified nature of decision-makers. It happens when the decision-makers strive for unanimity, and this overrides their motivation to consider alternative views. As a result, independent thinking is lost.

An Example of Groupthink

So, we all agree the Japanese won't attack

There could be a number of reasons for Groupthink occurring, but, generally, it's because the decision-makers are strong-willed and dominant, and subordinates want to avoid looking foolish or annoying the decision-makers. Whatever the reason, Groupthink can cause a group to make irrational decisions, because its members are fearful of upsetting the group's cohesiveness.

The most famous and commonly cited example of Groupthink is how the US Navy treated the threat of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

It was late 1941 and the US had not yet entered World War II. The officers of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor had intelligence that Japan was preparing for a large-scale attack, but they succeeded in convincing themselves it would have nothing to do with them. This assessment was based on the following assumptions:
  • Japan wouldn't dare mount a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, because it would bring the US into the war, which the US would win.
  • The US Pacific Fleet was too big and capable to attack.
  • The US would spot an invasion force in time to destroy it.
  • Torpedoes launched from enemy aircraft would be ineffective in the harbour's shallow water.
Their assessment was wrong. On 7 December 1941, Japan launched over 350 fighter aircraft, bombers and torpedo planes from six aircraft carriers. The planes sank or damaged all eight battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer and training ship. They destroyed 188 US aircraft and killed over 2,000 American servicemen.

Japan had a history of mounting pre-emptive military attacks, but this was not enough of a factor to override the officers' assumptions on Japan's intent. It is now known that some individuals were not comfortable with the assumptions and were more concerned about Japan's intent than others, but they felt compelled not to speak out. These individuals had succumbed to social pressures. They did not want to upset the collective view.

These two quotations capture Groupthink nicely:

"None of us is as dumb as all of us"

"Only dead fish go with the flow."


A bit more on this story: There's an oft-cited conspiracy theory that British signals intelligence at Bletchley Park had broken the codes of the Imperial Japanese Navy and was aware of the pending attack against the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The story goes that Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided not to tell the Americans. Why? Well, for two reasons supposedly: to ensure he didn't compromise the capabilities of Bletchley Park and to ensure the Americans were dragged into the war. Conspiracists claim that Churchill opted to keep quiet. If that were true, it would have been a wrongdoing equal in magnitude to ringing the Americans and telling them everything was fine. (See Omissions Bias.)

How to Avoid Groupthink

Take active measures to avoid Groupthink

Groupthink is bad. It's not something to be embraced. Groupthink is best avoided in meetings by setting rules at the start. Simply saying something like "We don't want to fall into the Groupthink trap. All questions and input are valid. Discussion is vital" will often give participants the confidence to pipe up with their individual concerns. As a group tends to be more vulnerable to Groupthink when its members have similar backgrounds, one way to overcome Groupthink is to invite outsiders to your meetings, especially ones known to be a bit outspoken. Another way is to set up a meeting specifically to challenge your assumptions or to see things from someone else's perspective (called a "red teaming" meeting).

Of course, it's hard to remove the hindsight we now have, but let's think about what red teaming might have achieved back in 1941.

Imagine the officers of the US Pacific Fleet had set up a "red team" to think like the Japanese. Very early in that meeting, one of the officers who would all have been pretending to be Japanese (because that's what you do during red teaming) would undoubtedly have said something like: "As events develop in Southeast Asia, war between us [Japan] and the US is inevitable. We can fight them with their Pacific Fleet or without. It's an obvious choice."

That idea alone would have made the US officers challenge their assumptions, and a precautionary surveillance operation would have been mounted. As a result, the US would have had more warning, and the Japanese fleet would likely have been decisively defeated by the mighty Pacific Fleet.

A good analysis team is keen to hear every point of view before presenting its assessments so meetings for devil's advocacy and red teaming are common events during a normal working week. The best analysts have trained themselves to drag alternative perspectives from their team. As meetings are wrapped up, you can often see the chairman scanning the attendees' faces for signs of concern that was not expressed at the meeting. Many meetings end with words like "John, do you still want to say something?" It happens because the chairman recognises that Groupthink is a social condition which needs a deliberate effort to keep it at bay.
Summary of Groupthink: If you think the desire for harmony in a decision-making group is preventing the individuals from presenting alternative views, tell them the group is suffering from Groupthink.
The information on this page is taken from
"How To Get Your Own Way"
by Craig Shrives and Paul Easter.


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