Small Wars Journal

Understanding Groupthink

Mon, 04/08/2013 - 3:30am

Madness is the exception in individuals, but the rule in groups.   — Friedrich Nietzsche

The brigade staff had assembled to discuss the upcoming mission with its commander.  Time was short, and pressure intense.  “This is the last thing we need right now, given everything else on our plate,” muttered the brigade XO under his breath.  The commander quickly discussed the essence of his mission analysis, gave curt guidance on a course of action he deemed suitable to accomplish the mission, and left the room.  The brigade XO and S3—both of whom had strong, dominant personalities—discussed between themselves a way ahead, and then began barking orders to the rest of the staff in order to get the mission planned as soon as possible.

A couple of the brigade staff’s deep thinkers, junior in grade to the rest, began thinking of all kinds of challenges with the commander’s guidance for the upcoming mission.  They each approached the brigade XO separately, only to be sternly rebuked for stepping out of line.  “Get on the team, pal—the boss told us what he wants.  Team play is our mantra here.”  Needless to say, the reaction on the part of the other staff members was to quickly sidle up to “the plan” as it unfolded, without challenging any aspect of it.  The longer everyone participated in the planning process, the more everyone seemed to get comfortable with its concept.  That is, they became increasingly complaisant. 

The brigade commander and staff had stereotyped its adversary, underestimating his sophistication.  Too many unchallenged assumptions led to too many surprises.  In a couple of instances, externally-provided information that would have opened everyone’s eyes during planning had been shooed away by either the brigade XO or S3.  Finally, new information which came to light late in the planning process—and which would have completely revealed the flaws of the plan’s concept—was summarily dismissed by the staff:  “This is obviously a case of erroneous information.”  While the staff assembled the plan in record time, the mission failed.  

Sound familiar?

Is Groupthink Commonly Understood?  In a recent Infinity Journal article, retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper credits Scottish military historian Hew Strachan with contending that the word ‘strategy’ has acquired “a universality which has robbed it of its meaning, and left it with only banalities.”[1]  Strategy is an example of a term we use so often that we risk desensitizing its meaning, or perhaps settle upon a more simplified definition.  In communicating ideas, it is questionable whether simplified terms with complex meaning like this convey the same things to everyone.

We contend that the term “groupthink” falls into this category.   Groupthink is a term used within the U.S. military, as well as the broader civilian business world.  Asking what groupthink consists of, however, often elicits an upward roll of the eyes.  “Everyone knows what groupthink is,” goes the unspoken response, implying the self-evident nature of the term.  The truth of that opinion is debatable. 

The purpose of this article is to enhance understanding of groupthink, by reintroducing the psychologist who coined the term.  We will also establish groupthink-related causes, and groupthink mitigation techniques.  The article then concludes by pondering who might be best suited to guard against groupthink’s onset.

To illustrate the nuanced challenges of groupthink, we informally surveyed a small group of Intermediate Level students at one of the Defense Department’s educational institutions.  The students were junior field grade officers from joint and international services, nearing the end of their year-long education.  Our survey asked two questions:  1) Whether their education had formally addressed groupthink as a subject; and 2) What were groupthink’s causes?  A little more than half of the group responded that while groupthink had been discussed early in their education year, albeit briefly as part of a broader class topic, groupthink was not a central focus of the class.  In response to the causes of groupthink, about half of the group cited dominant personalities within a group who ignored dissenting opinions, and the inclination of group members to remain within the group’s good graces by avoiding dissention.  Less than one-fourth of the responses cited direct pressure on any member who objected to group opinions.[2]  What strikes us is not what the students said, but what they did not say.  Their responses, when compared to the written material on groupthink, reflect a basic but limited understanding of the topic, and suggest room for improvement.[3]

What is groupthink, beyond the ideas that some of the students surfaced above?   How do we deal successfully with groupthink, if we don’t fully understand what it is?  How do we spot groupthink’s causes when they arise, and take measures to mitigate them?  Dr. Irving Janis provides answers.

Irving Janis and Groupthink.  Irving Janis studied accounts of the Kennedy Administration’s deliberations during the Bay of Pigs crisis, which occurred less than three months after President Kennedy’s inauguration.  Based upon a plan inherited from the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy and his national security advisors debated internally whether to proceed.  The resulting decision to support the invasion of Cuba was a fiasco. 

“How could we have been so stupid?” demanded John F. Kennedy after his administration’s invasion of Cuba had been soundly defeated at the Bay of Pigs.  The invasion was one of the most ill-conceived in American history.  Yet the planners of this operation included some of the smartest people in America.  They didn’t fail because they were stupid.  They failed because Kennedy and his advisors stumbled over the most common traps lurking in group decision-making terrain.  They agreed prematurely on the wrong solution.  Inadvertently, they gave each other biased feedback that made the group as a whole feel certain that it was making the right choice.  They discouraged each other from looking at the flaws in their assumptions.  And they ignored dissenters who tried to speak up.[4]

Janis was curious why the intelligent men of the Kennedy administration could have made such a blunder.  He wondered whether they had succumbed to a psychological condition associated with social conformity—whether these individuals were more interested in maintaining the approval of fellow group members than of stating their minds and challenging various notions within the group.[5]    

Janis’ study approach was to analyze the decision making faults and the group psychology of President Kennedy’s Executive Committee (EXCOM) during the Bay of Pigs crisis.  From this analysis, he synthesized a framework of groupthink causes, which he subsequently compared to other U.S. national security incidents—among them Pearl Harbor, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  After analyzing these other incidents, Janis was able to solidify his groupthink framework.  He published his results in a 1972 book, Victims of Groupthink; an updated version appeared in 1982, entitled Groupthink

Janis observed several faults in decision making, which he believed contribute to groupthink.   Said differently, these kinds of decision making errors prepared the ground for groupthink to occur.  These faults are the following:

  • Group discussion limited to a few alternative courses of action.
  • Inadequate group survey of objectives to solve the problem.
  • Failure of the group to reexamine a course of action preferred by the group after new evidence revealed risks to that course of action.
  • Group neglect of courses of action originally rejected, in spite of new information that ameliorates that risk.
  • Group disinclination to seek external opinion.
  • Selective bias in processing information provided by external sources.
  • Group neglect in devoting adequate time to consider how the chosen option might fail. 

Additionally, Janis felt that any given group might also succumb to other “common causes of stupidity…erroneous intelligence, information overload, fatigue, blinding prejudice, and ignorance.”[6]

Janis asserted that an informal correlation exists between the decision making faults (above) and what he synthesized as eight causes of groupthink.  These eight causes, paraphrased, are as follows:

  • A group illusion of invulnerability (vis-à-vis the object of planning), leading to excessive optimism and risk taking; this cause presumes an inherent intellectual or physical superiority.
  • Unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality (vis-à-vis the object of planning).
  • Group efforts to dismiss information that might require reconsideration of assumptions.
  • Stereotyped views of enemy leaders.
  • An inclination toward “self-censorship”:  this is a reaction on the part of individuals, who suppress personal doubt and counterargument in the interest of the larger group.
  • An illusion of unanimity:  this occurs where members implicitly presume the entire group holds a particular set of views, when in fact those views differ widely, and are unstated.
  • Direct pressure on members who do expresses contrary arguments, since those contrary arguments disrupt team unity.
  • Self-appointed “mind guards”—members who protect the group from hearing contrary information.[7]

Based on his analysis, Janis goes on to define groupthink: 

I use the term ‘groupthink’ as a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action...  Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.[8]

Admittedly, Dr. Janis’ research focused at the level of US national security.  One could argue that some of his observations, as verbalized, have limited merit within tactical military echelons.  We disagree.  For example, whereas Janis stipulates that a group’s illusion of invulnerability—or an unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality—are groupthink causes, certainly battalion- through corps-level staffs could succumb to these same kinds of causes during operations within the counterinsurgency realm, or while operating within foreign environments.  Rather, we believe that Janis’ groupthink causes transcend a particular type or echelon of unit.

Earlier in this article, we mentioned that we informally surveyed Intermediate Level students about groupthink.  Half of them cited causes of either 1) dominant personalities within a group who ignored dissenting opinions, or 2) the inclination of group members to remain within the group’s good graces by avoiding dissention.  Less than one-fourth of the surveyed students cited direct pressure on any member who objected to group opinions.   Based upon the ideas discussed thus far, what didn’t those students say?  Which of Janis’ groupthink causes lay outside of those student responses?   The students’ rather simplistic responses missed several causes that Janis cited:  any reference to a group’s illusion of invulnerability toward the object of planning—a presumption of superiority; allowing the group to express optimism and take excessive risk; the unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group; and stereotyping of enemy leaders.  All of these could be related to an implicit U.S. cultural mindset, hidden from view.  They did not identify a group’s “illusion of unanimity” that Janis cites as a groupthink cause, nor was there any mention of “self-appointed mind guards.”  Finally, Janis asserted that when a group commits any one of several decision making errors, then fertile ground exists for groupthink to occur.  None of the surveyed students identified that correlation. 

Overall, while the surveyed students hit some of the high points, their level of understanding was basic.  If Janis’ assertions are correct, and avoidance of groupthink is important, one should recognize the need for increased emphasis in the education of groupthink. 

Groupthink Mitigation Techniques.   To mitigate the effects of groupthink, Dr. Janis suggests several measures: 

  • The leader of groups should assign to each member the role of critical evaluator, and solicit objection and doubt.  The leader, in turn, should be open to group objections and doubts. 
  • The group leader should refrain from providing personal opinions to the group at the outset, so as to preclude group members from inferring “what the boss wants.” 
  • The group should establish several independent sub-groups to examine the same objective, to determine multiple ideas for the same issue. 
  • During its deliberations, the group should actively solicit external feedback on its positions, and be careful not to rationalize away feedback inconsistent with its views.
  • The group should also invite into its deliberations external expertise to challenge the group’s views.
  • One or more of the group’s members should be specifically assigned the role of devil’s advocate to challenge the group’s views.  This role should be rotated among the group’s members during deliberations.
  • After the group reaches consensus on its planning objective, it should convene a final meeting at which any remaining doubts or challenges might be offered.[9]

In their decision making book Winning Decisions, authors J. Edward Russo and Paul Schoemaker offer additional suggestions to mitigate groupthink:

  • The group’s members should not take sides too soon in decision making deliberations; better to defer judgment and hear all of the discussion first.
  • The group must have established norms which support conflict (in debate); this supports the idea that “task conflict” is an important element of decision making, while remaining on the lookout for (and avoiding) “relationship conflict.”  There are several ways to establish “conflict norms”:   
  • Ensure the group is heterogeneous.  Diversity among group members enhances the opportunities for insight and alternative perspective.  Individuals with wide variance in backgrounds, as well as difference in age, help establish heterogeneity.
  • Require group members to “precommit”:  to establish, in writing before deliberation begins, what each member believes the best ideas in solving the problem might be.  This practice, ideally, prevents each member from becoming tainted by others’ opinions once debate begins.
  • Solicit more than one option from each member individually.  Don’t allow members to sit back and relax, relying upon the option-generating prowess of fellow group members.
  • Solicit and use reports from minority members of the group to ensure that potentially useful alternative perspectives are not drowned out by the majority.[10]

Who Is Inclined To Identify Groupthink and Suggest Mitigation Techniques?  Who, on each military staff, is inclined to identify the causes of groupthink as they emerge?  Who has the knowledge of mitigation techniques to recommend their adoption? 

All of us…or at least all of us should.  If individual staff members truly understand what groupthink is, what its causes are, and what kind(s) of mitigation techniques would work given a particular context, then theoretically each member of a staff ought to be able to help prevent groupthink from occurring.  While it sounds simple enough, however, even those who understand the details of groupthink might still feel powerless to face it directly. 

Additionally, each staff element has a lens through which it views every problem, and its own set of focal points, time pressures and attendant products to provide.  In a perfect world, the Chief of Staff/Executive Officer has the authority and responsibility to manage the entire group process.  Accordingly, he/she ought to be able to act as the “groupthink monitor.”  Yet experience shows that this position seems to be most encumbered of all, and least able to devote enough time to the task while managing to accomplish everything else expected.

Decision support red teams have been documented for various Army units from brigade through Army Service Component Command, as well as in Unified Commands.  The Marine Corps is also implementing red teams within its structure.  Red teams exist to provide commanders an independent capability to fully explore alternatives in plans, operations, concepts, organizations and capabilities in the context of the operational environment and from the perspectives of partners, adversaries and others.  Red teams typically report to the Chief of Staff/Executive Officer, and have staff-wide authorities to observe, challenge views, and provide alternative perspectives.  Divorced from a specific staff element’s narrower focus, as well as the time pressures to produce various products, the red team has the independence to think broadly about the task in a manner that ideally the Chief of Staff/Executive Officer should.

The red team, then, can take on the task of looking for causes of groupthink as they occur, or of recommending mitigation techniques should the need arise.  The University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies educates red team members in various courses at Fort Leavenworth.  Its curriculum is devoted to self-awareness, critical thinking, and understanding culture from the perspective of cultural anthropologists.  The curriculum includes (in addition to groupthink) topics such as cognitive biases, the role of theory, and applying a set of frameworks with which to analyze problems, including how to properly assume the role of devil’s advocate. 

Groupthink is a subject that has more to it than meets the eye, in spite of its self-evident name.  Deeper understanding of groupthink, its causes, and mitigation techniques should help a commander and his staff prevent it from occurring, and red teams can assist in the cause.  Forewarned is forearmed.

[1] Paul Van Riper, “The Foundation of Strategic Thinking,” Infinity Journal 2, no. 3 (Summer 2012), citing Hew Strachan, “The Lost Meaning of Strategy” in Survival (Autumn 2005), p. 34.

[2] The sample size of this group was 21 students, all of whom were enrolled in an elective on red teaming. 

[3] This is not intended to cast aspersions upon the professional educators in the Defense Department’s Intermediate Level and Senior Service academic institutions.  All contend with a plethora of required topics, both joint- and service-related, and do so with finite limits on available time.  Instead, it is an indication that the level of understanding about groupthink begs emphasis, especially for Intermediate Level students who will graduate and become general staff officers, as well as senior leaders of brigade and battalion staffs.  All of them, in this capacity, will be subjected to staff work in intense environments and time pressures.  Lacking depth of understanding, they will be prone to succumb to groupthink’s magic.

[4] J. Edward Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker, Winning Decisions:  Getting It Right The First Time (New York: Random House, 2002), p. 159.

[5] Irving L. Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston: Wadsworth, 1982), p. vii.

[6] Ibid, p. 10.

[7] Ibid, pp. 174-175.

[8] Ibid, p. 9.

[9] Ibid, pp. 262-270.

[10] Russo and Schoemaker, pp. 169-175.



About the Author(s)

Colonel (Retired) Keith Vore graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1980 and served as an infantry officer in the US Army for over 26 years, commanding at the company, battalion and brigade level.  Since February 2008, he has served on the faculty of the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies—the Army’s “red team school."



Fri, 06/02/2023 - 6:19am


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