Janis, Groupthink

Author background: American research psychologist, 1918-1990. Psychological godfather of human factors analysis (as currently practiced by DIA and CIA) and attitude change through propaganda (as attempted by PSYOP and PA).

Thesis: People involved in a cohesive in-group will tend to seek concurrence at the expense of realistically evaluating alternative courses of action. The result is often irrational and sometimes dehumanizing policies or actions directed against out-groups.


1. Defined (p. 9)

1.1. a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group when members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternate COAs

1.2. a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, & moral judgment that results from group pressure

2. Members aren’t afraid to speak up, but subtle constraints drive conformity characterized by:

2.1. Members excluding dissenting opinions to restore group unity

2.2. Developing stereotyped images that dehumanize out-groups

2.3. Tendency for collective judgments of group to become polarized

3. Close to Allison’s bureaucratic model (model 3), but author sez it should be a 4th model

4. Major Defects in Decision-making

4.1.Discussions limited to a few alternative courses of action

4.2. Group does not survey the objectives to be fulfilled and values implicated by the choice

4.3. Group fails to reexamine the course of action that was initially preferred

4.4. Members neglect courses of action that were initially evaluated as unsatisfactory

4.5. Members make little or no attempt to obtain information from experts

4.6. Selective bias in processing factual information

4.7. Fail to examine how chosen policy might be hindered by bureaucracy & so make no contingency plans

5. Antecedent Conditions (p. 176) & Structural Faults (p. 244)

5.1. Cohesive group – not expected if members dislike each other or do not value membership

5.2. Insulation of the policy-making group – precludes introduction of outside information

5.3. Lack of tradition of impartial leadership – leader able to exert power/prestige to influence

5.4. Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures for decision-making tasks

5.5. Provocative situational contexts aggravate and enable groupthink

Case Studies

- Bay of Pigs – Kennedy inner circle failed to detect false assumptions, concurrence > debate, critique (p. 47)

- Pearl Harbor – Navy & Army groups in Hawaii & War Council in Washington all assumed Pearl Harbor was safe – “three interlocking groups mutually reinforced lack of vigilance, by what they didn’t say” (p. 95)

- The Marshall Plan – Good news case: role of evaluator given to each member, stated expectations at outset, independent policy-planning and evaluation groups – plan details done by a separate group (p. 172)

Implications for Strategy

1. Groupthink antecedents are inherent to military organizations – namely homogeneity of the group, social background and ideology as well as Provocative Contexts such as high stress, moral dilemmas, bad intel.

2. Removal or mitigation of antecedents can reduce chances of groupthink: structure and methods for task accomplishment, adherence to leader traditions, remove insulation & homogeneity with outside inputs

3. Poor outcomes don’t necessarily mean a bad process, nor are good outcomes necessarily indicative of good processes. Those that create the plan shouldn’t check the plan or execute the plan. Seek outside input.

4. Recognize that adversaries can often be victims of groupthink, and that this can be exploited by establishing operational contexts that promote groupthink.

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