Steve G.

Groupthink as a Political Mental Illness (Part I)

In Congress, Corruption, Democracy, Democrats, History, Libertarian, Libertarian Politics, Politics, Republican, Science, US Government on June 18, 2009 at 1:53 pm

[When I was researching information for my Master’s Paper in 1989, I was looking into the subject of how Greek students being involved in student activities impacted the ability of independent students to be equally involved. What I quickly discovered was that, apparently, NO ONE had ever written anything about this. I was teaching myself how to use a computer while I was doing this and on-line research was rather limited back then. Never-the-less, in trying to find information which would even relate to my topic I discovered studies on groupthink, conformity and shame theory… three areas of psychology that I could also not find any evidence of having been studied together. I was creating my own database on the subject.

I had no knowledge about these things before I started doing my research but, one day that Fall, it all came together in my mind. When it did I was literally stunned and shaking in fright. I called a friend of mine in California and it took me around four hours of talking (pretty much me talking and rambling for four hours and him listening) for me to even calm down. These things haunt me to this very day. While I was doing my research with regard to application within the field of Student Activities and College Unions, I also immediately saw its implications within politics. My entire research paper was close to 90 pages long, but a year later I took a portion of it to create a smaller article to try to get published. Unfortunately, I never heard any response from any of the researchers or student activities / college union journals I sent it to. And so it was all put away in a box and carried around with me for 20 years.

Not too long ago, I found the box the papers were in (hard copies only, of course) and have been wanting to transcribe them so that I could have them computerized. I am starting with the shorter article and, because I reference it or base portions of other articles on what I learned for it, I have decided that I would post it on here… in two parts because it is still too long for a single article on here, and with references to student activities changed to ones about politics… to see if it can help others understand aspects of social psychology within politics that they might not be consciously aware of.  I sincerely hope that this disturbs you, the reader, as much as it has disturbed me.

P.S. — I also developed a method that I thought could successfully combat hazing in schools, especially in Greek systems but, when I would try to get ANY school to let me try them, once it was learned that I, myself, had been an independent student… mostly by administrators who, themselves had been Greeks, I was always told that since I hadn’t been a Greek then I didn’t have basis upon which to make claims to understand them. They would tell me that only other Greeks could understand their ‘culture’ or fix what was broken in it… a classic example of groupthink in action. I eventually let it go, as I did my career in student activities.

P.P.S. — After reading this, can anyone NOT understand why I hold the entire Bush Presidency and administration in contempt? I would like to see someone write a book about the Bush Presidency SPECIFICALLY as a study of groupthink and how it illustrates every indication of the phenomenon.]

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In 1972, Irving Janis, in his book Victims of Groupthink, added a new dimension to the study of group behavior and group dynamics when he described “groupthink” as:

… a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are involved in a cohesive in-group; when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative course of action… Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.

(Janis, 1972, p. 9)

That single work seems to have had an immediate and almost historic impact on the study of group behavior.  Since the first publication of Victims of Groupthink, many researchers have been moved to study, to support, or to refute both Janis’s theories and the implications of groupthink.  Whatever has motivated any of these people, one thing is clear; that single work has been the starting point for many, if not all of these studies, and research on this phenomenon uniformly refers to Janis as the originator of the concept of groupthink, as well as its definer.

Early in his book, Janis gives the following story as an example of groupthink:

Twelve middle-class American men and women wanted to stop smoking, and attended weekly meetings at a clinic to discuss the problem.  Early in the sessions, two people stood up and declared that cigarette smoking was an almost incurable addiction.  The group agreed.  The, one man stood up and said “I have stopped smoking and, with a little willpower, so can the rest of you.”  Immediately, the other group members began to abuse him verbally, and the meeting ended in chaos.  The following week, the dissident stood up again and said that he could not both attend all of the required meetings and stop smoking; so he had returned to smoking two packs of cigarettes as day.  The other members welcomed him back into the fold with enthusiasm but no one mentioned that the original purpose of the group was to help each other stop [emphasis in original] smoking.  Their new aim was maintaining the status quo at any cost.

(Ibid, p. 9)

Janis illustrated his theories by using seven recent major historical events; five of which he labeled as fiascoes and the other two which he termed successes relating to the resultant outcomes of those events, based on the decisions that were made.  He argued that the decision making processes in the five fiascoes were faulty, regardless of the outcomes, and, likewise, the decision-making processes used in the successes were effective, even if the events would have not turned out positively.  He stresses that it is the processes used in a group’s decision-making that determines whether or not that group is a victim of groupthink and not the outcomes because bad-decision-making processes can result in good or successful results or outcomes, just as good decision-making processes can result in bad or unsuccessful results or outcomes. (Janis, fig. 10-1)

In his original work (Janis, 1972), Janis identified six major defects in the decision-making process which result I groupthink and which, in turn, result in poor quality decisions.  In the 1982 edition (Janis, 1982), he added a seventh defect to his list.  These seven defects are:

1.)    Discussions are limited to only a few alternatives without surveying all possible alternatives;

2.)   The originally preferred solution is not re-evaluated for non-obvious drawbacks or risks after its initial evaluation;

3.)    Alternatives which are initially discarded are never re-evaluated for non-obvious gains;

4.)   There is little or no attempt made to obtain information or advice from experts on alternative courses of action;

5.)    Where advice IS presented, selective bias on the part of the members is used to evaluate that advice and, thus, they use information which supports the group’s preferences and ignore evidence which is counter to the group’s preference;

6.)   Members fail to consider how groups external to the focal group might react and, therefore, fail to develop contingency plans for possible setbacks or failures; and

7.)    There is a failure to consult all members regarding the objectives to be fulfilled and the values implicated by their choice.

(Janis, 1972, p. 10; Janis, 1982, pp. 9 – 10)

Janis then went on to identify several antecedent condition which are necessary for groupthink to exist, and which relate to structural faults of the organization and the decision-making context.  The primary antecedent condition necessary for groupthink is a highly cohesive group.  The secondary conditions (which relate to the organization’s structural faults) are:

1.)    Insulation of the group;

2.)   Lack of a tradition of impartial leadership;

3.)    Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures; and

4.)   Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology.

The tertiary conditions (which relate to the decision-making context) are:

1.)    High stress due to isolation of the group (usually for security reasons instituted because of perceived external threats);

2.)   Low hope of a better solution than the leader’s; and

3.)    Low self-esteem temporarily induced by the group members’ perceptions of:

A.)   Recent Failures;

B.)   Moral dilemmas; and

C.)   Excessive difficulty in current decision-making.

Finally, Janis postulates that the existence of these conditions generates eight symptoms of groupthink, which were evident in the fiascoes studies and which serve as the primary means of identifying the occurrences of groupthink.  These eight symptoms are:

1.)    An illusion of invulnerability that is shared by most members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages the group to take extreme risks;

2.)   Collective efforts to rationalize in order to discount warnings which might lead members to reconsider their assumptions before they recommit themselves to past policy decisions;

3.)    An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality, which makes the members inclined to ignore the ethical and moral consequences of their decisions;

4.)   Stereotyped views of enemy leaders, usually considering them as too evil to warrant genuine attempts to negotiate, or as too stupid and / or too weak to counter whatever attempts are made to defeat their purposes;

5.)    Directed pressure on any member who does not conform to the group’s norms, who express strong arguments against any of the group’s stereotypes, illusions, decisions, or commitments, thereby making it clear to all that this type of dissent is contrary to what is expected of all loyal members;

6.)   Self-censorship of individual deviations from the apparent group consensus, reflecting each member’s inclination to minimize to him or herself the importance of his / her doubts and counter arguments;

7.)    A shared illusion of unanimity concerning the judgments conforming to the majority view (partly resulting from self-censorship of deviations, and augmented by the false assumption that silence means consent); and

8.)   The emergence of self-appointed mindguards – members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter the group’s shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions.

(Janis, 1972, pp. 197 – 198)

While Janis’ theories are not perfect, nor even necessarily complete, he has still provided a very strong starting point from which to begin exploring this issue.  Regarding the studies on groupthink which have been reviewed, there are some weaknesses which have been noticed in them, at least as far as their being of any potential benefit to the study of larger groups or political parties. Among these weaknesses are:

1.)    The studied laboratory groups are very small, usually three to five people (six reports studied).  These sized groups do not allow for the effects of internal cliques or sub-groups within a main group to be incorporated within the studies, or to arise independently over the course of the studies.  Thus, while there may be dissension (and / or other such factors) which is created / controlled by the researchers, or which arises independently, these studies groups are still small enough to leave individual subjects as each being a significant percentage of the entire group (33.3% — 20%) and, thus, more individually significant to the group.  Theories and research on ‘diffused responsibility’ indicate that when individuals are such a significant portion of the group, they are more likely to feel that they are more individually important to the group and are, even alone, able to have an impact on the group.  This generally means that they are more likely to retain their personal feelings of responsibility for the decisions and / or actions of their group, as a whole.  If there is dissent, etc., within the group, it can still be dealt with on a person-to-person basis.  In these small groups, if the ‘group’ puts pressure on dissenters, it cannot do so and ‘disguise’ the fact that it is made up of distinct individuals by their being a ‘force’, ‘it, or ‘them’ instead of ‘Mark, Jody, Bill, and Mary’, or ‘those four’. The group dynamic in groups within such a size range is dramatically different from the group dynamics within groups the size political parties, or even local communities.

2.)   There is little, if any, attention placed on what the members of the laboratory groups have to lose if they should feel inclined to dissent from the group’s decisions or actions.  In politics, we deal with the day-to-day lives of average citizens and, while citizens might be able to hide their personal discomfort levels when they are simply, for example, at work by leaving that ‘life’ behind them when they leave work for the day and enter back into their ‘outside-of-work social-life’, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for them to retreat from pressures and discomforts in their social lives in any way other than by withdrawing into themselves and isolating themselves away from inter-personal contact which causes them discomfort.  Therefore, if all that individuals risk losing in a study is closeness with others in that laboratory setting, are they more or less likely to risk that closeness and acceptance by retaining their individuality and dissenting from group pressure than they would be to risk being socially or professionally ostracized from, or losing prestige among their peers (prestige here can mean status but does not necessarily; it is more related to levels of confidence, respect and / or acceptance which an individual feels from their peers) if they should attempt to retain their individuality and dissent from the majority views in a social or political environment?

3.)    There is little mention mad of the emotional or intellectual comfort levels of the subjects when they are within the confines of their group situations.   It would seem to be obvious that these are important factors which need to be considered in such studies.  The more uncomfortable a person feels, or feels they will become if they take a particular dissenting decision or action, shame theory, as well as common sense tells us the more likely they are to do, say or go along with whatever they have to do in order to remain or to once again become comfortable.

4.)   Those studies which use dominant leadership as a factor or variable do not also use group leadership or dominance which comes about through the backing of, or support from, a clique or sub-group within the main group or even, as far as can be told by reading their studies, recognize it as being different from charismatic or personality-based leadership or dominance.  However, in real-life, such group leadership or dominance is a common occurrence, such as the promotion of those who are incompetent to lead or manage, or a ‘puppet’ leader put in place so that those with real power can stay behind the scenes.

5.)    While some of the studies try to create artificial cohesive in-groups in some of their laboratory groups, there is no mention made of the effects which real social relationships between group members has on their responses within a group setting.  For example, if group members do not know each other from outside of their group environment prior to their joining it and, thus build any in-group cohesion, friendships or inter-personal relationships with other group members, are they more or less likely to be a strong group member, concerned with the greater good of the group, than are group members who know each other from outside of the group, or who were friends with or colleagues of other group members prior to their becoming a member of the group?  Are group members who know other group members or are friends with them before becoming a member of the group, especially those who join the group BECAUSE they already know, or were friends  with other members (in fact, who might have been specifically recruited into the group by friends, etc. who are already group members), more or less likely to be conscientious group members who are willing to dissent from or even question the group’s decisions or actions (since their outside acquaintances with other members can be affected positively or negatively by their own personal words or actions within the group) than are group members who became acquainted with other group members only through membership in the group?  What about those who know other group members outside of the group and have pre-existing animosity of them, or who become a member IN SPITE OF members they already who they dislike or who try to keep them out of the group?  What about those who join for social acceptance by people that they know outside of the group?  These possible variables are numerous and are important considerations within our political groups or organizations because a common way for new members to be brought into a group or organization is for them to be recruited by friends and / or acquaintances.  We need to know what effects such membership recruitment has on the very real functioning of those groups and organizations.

6.)   When a study makes ‘getting input from group members about possible decisions to be made or actions to be taken’ a factor or variable of the study, is there any assessment about whether or not there is any difference between input which is sought and / or received under a ‘glaring spotlight’ or in a situation of possible derision or resistance, and input that is sought and received in confidence and / or in a situation of respect and / or openness?  If not, have any of the researchers given any consideration within their studies to the effects that the manner in which input is sought has on the input that is received?

7.)    While Janis gives us examples of, and specifications about groupthink, it would be helpful if, to demonstrate the point that the presence of groupthink is determined by the decision-making PROCESS, itself, and not of the outcomes of that process (good processes can still result in bad outcomes and bad processes can still result in good outcomes), it would be helpful if examples were included of such good / non-groupthink processes which resulted in negative outcomes AND of bad / groupthink processes which resulted in positive outcomes. The theory is stated regarding this, but the case is never made.

(This Article will be concluded in Part II, which will include information on conformity studies and on shame theory)Rhys M. Blavier

Romayor, Texas

Truth, Justice and Honor… but, above all, Honor

© Copyright 1989 by Rhys M.  Blavier

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Thank you for reading this article.  Please read my other articles and let me know what you think.  I am writing them not to preach or to hear myself think but to try to create dialogs, debates and discussions on the nature of our government and how we can build upon and improve it based on what we have seen and learned over the course of the 225 years of The American Experiment.

  1. Thank you for this; do you have Part II … ?

  2. Vicktorya,

    I sent it in with part I, quite awhile ago. You can find it on my Newsvine Column (http://blavier.newsvine.com/) and here is the specific link: http://blavier.newsvine.com/_news/2009/06/15/2933680-groupthink-as-a-political-mental-illness-part-ii

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