Matt Domsalla

SAASS 601/11

Groupthink Precis

In Groupthink, Yale University psychologist Irving Janis explores lapses in group judgment and decision-making. Janis asserts that members of a group evolve informal norms of behavior that preserve friendly intragroup relations and that these norms become a hidden agenda at meetings. Janis defines groupthink as a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures. Janis explores the group decision-making process in fiascoes to determine defects in the group process. He identifies seven defects: (1) group’s discussions are limited to a few alternative courses of action (often only two) without a survey of the full range of alternatives, (2) group does not survey the objectives to be fulfilled and the values implicated by the choice, (3) group fails to reexamine the course of action initially preferred by the majority of members from the standpoint of nonobvious risks and drawback that had not been considered when it was originally evaluated, (4) members neglect course of action initially evaluated as unsatisfactory by the majority, (5) members make little or no attempt to obtain information from experts who can supply sound estimates of losses and gains to be expected from alternative courses of action, (6) selective bias is shown in the way the group reacts to factual information and relevant judgments from experts, the mass media, and outside critics, and (7) members spend little time deliberating about how the chosen policy might be hindered by bureaucratic inertia, sabotaged by political opponents, or temporarily derailed by the common accidents that happen to the best of well-laid plans. For Janis, groupthink is conducive to errors in decision-making and such errors increase the likelihood of a poor outcome. Janis uses the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the failure to prepare for an attack on Pearl Harbor as case studies where groupthink resulted in poor outcomes. Janis uses the Cuban missile crisis and the making of the Marshall Plan as examples where the group was able to resist the temptation of group think. Janis developed three main types of group think – Overestimations of the group’s power and morality, Closed-mindedness, and Pressures toward uniformity. Janis argues structural faults of the group make it easy for symptoms of groupthink to become dominant. He concludes with prescriptions for avoiding group think – assign role of critical evaluator, leader is impartial rather than stating preferences, independent review groups, sub-groups, outside experts, devil’s advocate, construct alternative scenarios of the rivals’ intentions, and a “second chance” meeting.


· “The more amiability and esprit de corps among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.” (13)

A Perfect Failure: The Bay of Pigs

· “All who participated in the Bay of Pigs decision were perturbed about the dangerous gap between their expectations and the realities they should have anticipated.” (16)

· “But collectively they failed to detect the serious flaws in the invasion plan.” (19)

· Six major miscalculations: 1) won’t believe it’s the US, cover story will be believed, 2) Cuban AF ineffectual, 3) high morale in exile brigade and it won’t need US support, 4)Castro’s army is weak, 5) exile brigade invasion will touch off further uprisings in Cuba, and 6) exile brigade can escape to the mountains. (19 – 26)

· Official explanation as to why the group failed: 1) political calculations, 2) new administration but old bureaucracy, 3) secrecy to the point of excluding the experts, 4) threats to personal reputation and status. (30 – 32)

· “Overoptimistic expectations about the power of their side and the weakness of the opponents probably enable members of a group to enjoy a sense of low vulnerability to the effects of any decision that entails risky action against an enemy.” (37)

· “When a group of people who respect each other’s opinions arrive at a unanimous view, each member is likely to feel that the belief must be true. This reliance on consensual validation tends to replace individual critical thinking and reality-testing, unless there are clear-cut disagreements among the members.” (37)

· “A mindguard protects [the decision-maker] from thoughts that might damage their confidence in the soundness of the policies to which they are committed or to which they are about to commit themselves.” (41)

Pearl Harbor Revisited: Or, Why the Fortress Slept

· “When groupthink dominates, the members of a decision-making group share a sense of complacency and fail to respond to warnings.” (72)

· “[Members of a group] develop a set of shared beliefs that rationalize their complacency about the soundness of their policy decisions.” (83)

· “The three groups helped each other maintain a façade of complacency and set the state for America’s astounding unreadiness at Pearl Harbor.” (96)

The Cuban Missile Crisis

· “The decision-makers (1) thoroughly canvassed a wide range of alternative courses of action; (2) surveyed the objectives and the values implicates; (3) carefully weighed the costs, drawbacks, and subtle risks of negative consequences, as well as the positive consequences, that could flow from what initially seemed the most advantageous courses of action; (4) continuously searched for relevant information for evaluating the policy alternatives; (5) conscientiously took account of the information and the expert judgments to which they were exposed, even when the information or judgments did not support the course of action they initially preferred; (6) reexamined the positive and negative consequences of all the main alternatives, including those originally considered unacceptable, before making a final choice; and (7) made detailed provisions for executing the chosen course of action, with special attention to contingency plans that might be required if various known risks were to materialize.” (136)

· “If the same committee members show groupthink tendencies in making a decision at one time and not at another, the determining factors must lie in the circumstances of their deliberations, not in the fixed attributes of the individuals who make up the group.” (158)

The Making of the Marshall Plan

· “The Marshall Plan succeeded because it was so carefully designed and implemented.” (159)

· Tentative inferences: 1) assign role of critical evaluator, 2) leaders must adopt impartial stance, and 3) independent policy-planning and evaluation groups. (172)

The Groupthink Syndrome

· Type I: Overestimations of the group – its power and morality (174 – 175)

o Illusion of invulnerability, leads to excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks

o Belief in group’s inherent morality

· Type II: Closed-mindedness

o Rationalize to discount warning

o Stereotyped view of enemy leaders

· Type III: Pressures toward uniformity

o Self-censorship of deviations

o Shared illusion of unanimity

o Direct pressure on deviants

o Emergence of self-appointed mindguards

Generalizations: Who Succumbs, When, and Why

· “All policy-makers are vulnerable whenever circumstances promote concurrence-seeking.” (243)

· When – structural features and situational circumstances. (248)

· Why – “Concurrence-seeking as a form of striving for mutual support based on a powerful motivation in all group members to cope with the external or internal stresses of decision-making.” (255)

Preventing Groupthink

· Critical evaluator (262)

· Impartial leaders (263)

· Independent policy-planning and evaluation groups (264)

· Separate sub-groups (265)

· Outside experts or qualified colleagues (266)

· Devil’s advocate (267)

· Survey all warning signs (268)

· “Second chance” meeting (270)

· “Awareness of the shared illusions, rationalizations, and other symptoms fostered by the interaction of members of small groups may curtail the influence of groupthink in policy0making groups, including those that meet in the White House.” (276)


Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos Irving Janis (1982)

Janis explores the concepts of groupthink causing poor decision making that end in fiascos. Outlines what groupthink is and uses historical examples of good and bad small group decisions.

Groupthink – When small cohesive groups fail to think critically through a problem because of the social pressure to group cohesion rises higher overrides dissent. Non-conformists are usually challenged and then isolated if they refuse to conform.

Pre-conditions – Cohesion, homogeneity, high-stakes, elite in-group, moral-superiority.

Pg. 244 outlines the process in a simple chart.

To try to prevent it, encourage dissenting views, leader withhold ideas at least initially, leader encourage people to challenge their ideas, set up multiple groups, bring in diverse people to the group, etc.

Hughes Question – Consensual Unanimity – Good or Bad? à came from1787 Constitutional convention, supposed to update articles, 54 men wrote Constitution, 2nd time many committed treason, peaceful overthrow of government. Jefferson (old now, quiet participant) – lots of dissent, no one agrees with it all, but everyone signed it, a good meeting.

Examples in readings

- Bay of Pigs – fiasco

- Pearl Harbor – fiasco

- Marshall Plan – good example of small group dynamics (Kennan’s state team) (Truman pres)

Not read in book

- North Korea War in or out – fiasco (Truman)

- Escalation of Vietnam – fiasco

- Cuban Missile Crisis – good example (same team as Pay of Pigs, close to escalate Vietnam)

- Watergate – fiasco

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