We all know that teamwork and cohesion are useful in a team or work environment. But when taken too far, at times groupthink can evolve and have negative consequences (Gokar,2013).
Groupthink occurs when people override their common sense desire to present alternatives, critique positions, or express unpopular opinions. It is common for team members suffering from groupthink to make poor decisions and to overlook possible pitfalls, which can lead to disastrous consequences for the company. A working definition used in Psychology Today is “Groupthink occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.”
This term originated with Irving Janis in his classic 1971 paper on how group decision-making led to historic U.S. foreign policy blunders.
In examining how group behaviour, biases, and pressures influence group decisions, Janis sought to explain why highly intelligent groups often made bad decisions. There is widespread acceptance of group think in many fields, such as social psychology, organisational theory, and group decision-making sciences.
According to Janis, groupthink is caused by a number of structural factors, including the cohesiveness of a decision-making group, its formal rules, its leadership, the social homogeneity of its members, and their context or situation. He went to explain the impact on decision making :
“The advantages of having decisions made by groups are often lost because of powerful psychological pressures that arise when the members work closely together, share the same set of values and, above all, face a crisis situation that puts everyone under intense stress.” (1972)
The signs of groupthink are not always obvious, especially in a cohesive team that is used to working together. However groupthink can be characterised by the following signs and symptoms:
- Members of a team tend to come from similar social backgrounds
- A closed environment surrounds the team
- This organisation lacks a robust way to evaluate a range of ideas and thoughts
- Favouritism is displayed by leaders
- There is a preference for conformity over diversity of ideas and free expression in groups
As a result of groupthink, decisions are made ignoring possible alternatives and focusing on a narrow number of goals, ignoring risks associated with a particular course of action. Alternative information is not sought or the available information is considered in a biased manner. As soon as alternative solutions are rejected, contingency plans are neglected, and alternatives are forgotten.
According to Janis, groupthink is most prevalent in the following conditions:
- Whenever there is a high level of cohesiveness
- Situational factors (such as external threats, moral problems, difficult decisions) that may lead people to defer to the group.
- When there are structural issues (such as group isolation and a lack of impartial leadership)
How to avoid Groupthink and Conformity in the Workplace
Groupthink can lead to people ignoring important information, resulting in poor decisions. A situation like this can be damaging even in minor situations, but in certain circumstances it can have far more dire consequences. Therefore it is beneficial to identify groupthink and be aware of measures that can limit its affects.
As a means of preventing groupthink, proposals have included introducing multiple channels for dissent in decision making and mechanisms for maintaining the openness and heterogeneity of a group (Bang and Frith, 2017). Where possible slowing down the decision making process can help, by critically evaluating ideas, and including as many levels and layers as possible, in the decision making process. Engaging external advice can help as well as informed leadership that encourages open feedback and creates an environment where all voices are heard equally. Encourage open feedback and an environment where all voices matter is required in order to prevent groupthink.
More on Conformity
- “Conformity is a movement toward a set of group norms, so compliance refers to behaviours that are overtly aligned with those norms, while acceptance refers to attitudes and perceptions that are covert.” (Read More)
Bang D, Frith CD. Making better decisions in groups. R Soc Open Sci. 2017;4(8):170193. doi:10.1098/rsos.170193
Gokar H. Groupthink principles and fundamentals in organizations. Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business. 2013;5(8):225-240.
Janis, I. L. (1971). Groupthink among policy makers
Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. 1972.
Janis, I. L. (1973). Groupthink and group dynamics: A social psychological analysis of defective policy decisions. Policy Studies Journal, 2(1), 19.
In the recent coverage after Queen Elizabeth’s passing, I heard someone who worked with her say that she had an independent mind and where appropriate would go against popular opinion or the general consensus. While one of the hallmarks of a democracy or a healthy organisation is the ability of free speech or for divergent opinions to be heard. But at other times thinking seems to converge and conform. To explain why we look back to one of the most influential social psychologists, Solomon Asch, who pioneered work in the area of conformity and group thinking.
Solomon Asch was a Polish American psychologist who pioneered social psychology through the study of Gestalt psychology. Among the topics he researched were how people form impressions of others and how prestige may affect judgements. Group pressure and conformity are two of Asch’s greatest contributions. In 2002, the Review of General Psychology ranked Asch as the 41st most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
Building on and critiquing the work of the prominent social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, Asch, developed his own research into the areas of group pressure experiments and demonstrated the influence of group pressure on opinions in his conformity experiments.
Asch came up with another conformity experiment but this time, he made sure that a task with an obvious, unambiguous answer was presented. In 1951, Asch presented the now regarded classic experiment in social psychology using a line judgment task.
Which of these three lines is the same length as the lonesome line on the left?
And yet in Asch’s conformity experiment conducted in the 1950s, 76 percent of people denied their own senses at least once, choosing either A or B.
The main purpose of this experiment was to understand how peer pressure could force people to conform, even when they were aware that the rest of the group was wrong. This included how people are likely to agree to a false answer just because most of the group has sided with the wrong answer. Asch indicated that in many settings, there is always a likelihood that many people doubt their opinions, where the “social process is polluted” (Asch, 1955) and therefore end up siding with a majority of the group either because they doubt being right or they fear being seen as different. This often happens in different contexts including situations where the answer is obvious, and that “any given idea or value can be “sold” or “unsold” without reference to its merits” (Asch, 1955). Asch’s research revealed the strength of social influence and continues to inspire social psychology scholars to this day.
Further conformity research and Asch’s legacy
Further research on conformity highlighted that the results in the Asch experiment, while significant to social psychology thinking, were to some extent “a child of their generation” and culture. Spencer and Perrin (1980) introduced similar research, introducing a more complex test.
A major difference between learners in the 1950’s and 1980’s is that the learners, in the1950’s, were more subjective and were more likely to join in with the larger population to belong and be viewed as a rising member.
Asch’s work has influenced how psychologists think about and research social influence in groups (Levine, 1999). His studies on independence and conformity are his most well-known and validated accomplishments. It is apparent from the Asch conformity experiment that people’s opinions are strongly influenced by the people around them. In fact, the Asch conformity experiment demonstrates how willing many people are to deny their own senses for the sake of conformity. The human race is naturally conformist, copying one another’s dress sense, ways of talking, and attitudes without hesitation.
Asch showed that people were willing to overlook reality and give an inaccurate answer to fit in with the rest of the group. Asch argued that “it brings into conflict two powerful forces by which we construct reality; our own subjective experience, and intersubjective agreement.” (Rock & Rock, 2014).
In addition, it can be seen from the wider Asch research and later research that effective group functioning relies on independence (Kampmeier & Simon, 2001; Graupensperger & Benson), and that independence and conformity are not just mirror images that may be explained by a single psychological process (Levine, 1999).
Types of conformity
Conformity is classified into two categories: public (compliance) and private (acceptance). Conformity is a movement toward a set of group norms, so compliance refers to behaviours that are overtly aligned with those norms, while acceptance refers to attitudes and perceptions that are covert. Compliance occurs, for instance, if an individual refuses to sign a petition advocating immigration, learns that a group advocates them, and then signs one. Alternatively, if a person secretly believed that immigration should be outlawed, learned that certain groups advocated immigration rights, and then changed his private opinion, he would show acceptance. The two most important forms of nonconformity are independence and anti-conformity. Individuals who are independent exhibit neither compliance nor acceptance after being subjected to the pressure of a group at first. When confronted with disagreement, a person stands firm. The opposite of conformity is anti-conformity, which occurs when a person initially disagrees with a group after which they move even further away from its position (at a public or private level). (Interestingly, anti-conformers are just as susceptible to group pressure as conformers, but they move away from the group to demonstrate their susceptibility.)
The role of motivation
A person conforms to group pressure to satisfy two important desires: the desire to perceive reality accurately and to be accepted by others. The reason people hold accurate beliefs about the world is because such beliefs usually lead to positive outcomes. Several beliefs about the world can be verified objectively; other beliefs cannot be verified objectively, and must be verified through social means, namely by comparison with those held by other people whose judgment one respects. One gains confidence in others if they agree with one’s beliefs; one loses confidence if they disagree. To eliminate disagreement, people conform to group norms.
Despite being similar and related concepts, conformity and groupthink have important differences. A groupthink process involves decision-making. In contrast, conformity refers to people changing their own behaviour to fit in with specific groups. We will focus on group think in a future post.
Overall, studies demonstrate that most people ‘tell the truth even when others do not’, Hodges and Geyer (2006). The Asch studies demonstrated that people may conform even when no evident pressure is applied, as well as how quickly they can shift when confronted with contradictory information.
More on Conformity
- “Groupthink occurs when people override their common sense desire to present alternatives, critique positions, or express unpopular opinions” (Read more)
Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193(5), 31-35.
Graupensperger, S. A., Benson, A. J., & Evans, M. B. (2018). Everyone else is doing it: The association between social identity and susceptibility to peer influence in NCAA athletes. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 40(3), 117-127.
Hodges, B. H., & Geyer, A. L. (2006). A nonconformist account of the Asch experiments: Values, pragmatics, and moral dilemmas. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(1), 2-19.
Kampmeier, C., & Simon, B. (2001). Individuality and group formation: The role of independence and differentiation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(3), 448.
Levine, J. M. (1999). Solomon Asch’s legacy for group research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3(4), 358-364.
Perrin, S., & Spencer, C. (1980). The Asch effect-A child of its time. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 33(NOV), 405-406.
Rock, I., & Rock-DECEASED, I. (2014). The legacy of Solomon Asch: Essays in cognition and social psychology. Psychology Press