Groupthink: Origins of a Word

NLI Groupthink master class

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NLI Staff
In 1971, a Yale psychologist borrowed a chilling concept from the novel "1984" to label a new phenomenon of human behavior.

The term groupthink in its modern sense was coined by Yale psychologist Irving Janis in 1971, writing in the pages of Psychology Today. Janis proposed the word as a label to diagnose a previously unknown malady he saw as interfering with people’s ability to make good decisions in a group setting.

In formulating a word to name this chilling new concept, Janis chose “groupthink” as a parallel to “doublethink,” a concept from 1984, the dystopian novel by George Orwell. When people get together in a group, Janis suggested, they are subject to conformity pressures that bias their ability to reason clearly and rationally.

Today, groupthink is often a pernicious force in collaborative settings, as NLI captured in the white paper “The Business Case: How Diversity Defeats Groupthink.”

The dire consequences of groupthink

Harmony is seductive and getting along feels good, so everyone wants to seem like a team player, Janis believed. As a result, he proposed, each individual works hard to make their own opinion conform to what they believe is the consensus of the group. The satisfaction of belonging to a cohesive group leads people to suppress their inner doubts. Loud voices overpower quieter ones, dissent is quashed, and the outcome is flawed, sometimes disastrous decisions — from the Bay of Pigs Invasion to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

After Janis’ article and subsequent book, the word groupthink caught on in government and business circles and quickly entered the lexicon in the sense we know it today. But what many people don’t know is that although Janis was the progenitor of the word in its current sense, he was not the first to use the word. That distinction goes to a journalist named William Whyte, writing in the pages of Fortune Magazine in 1952:

Groupthink is becoming a national philosophy. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity — it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.

Whyte defined groupthink as a “philosophy” of “rationalized conformity” holding that the values of the group are necessarily right and good — a sense closer to what we today might call “political correctness.” As Steven Poole explains in The Guardian, Whyte saw groupthink as “a kind of creeping cultural-scientific communism, which freed people from moral decision-making because ‘the system’ would manage things better than the individual.”

That’s a far cry from the way in which Janis reconceptualized groupthink twenty years later: not as a philosophy at all, but a bias that afflicts groups. The way Janis conceived it, groupthink operates not as a consciously held belief, but as an invisible pressure to conform that arises spontaneously in the moment, affecting people’s judgment without their even knowing they’re being affected. Groupthink, in other words, is an unconscious bias — and that’s what makes it so dangerous.

Groupthink in organizations

Any team that makes decisions as a group is vulnerable to groupthink. Fortunately, there is an antidote: It’s called diversity.

Studies show that diverse teams are smarter — consistently outperforming homogeneous teams, especially on tasks that are creative, nonlinear, or complex. That’s because being part of a group that’s getting along feels pleasurable. As NLI research scientist Valerie Purdie Greenaway puts it, “fluency is fun.” When you’re in a homogeneous group and spirits are high, you’re not going to feel like turning to the person next to you and telling them they’re wrong. It feels more important to keep the momentum going.

That’s where diversity comes in. Diverse teams are smarter precisely because they feel less comfortable. When you bring dissimilar people together, it upsets the equilibrium, and can even cause friction and tension. But that discomfort is what prevents the group from lapsing into an unreasoning consensus. Instead, the group assesses information more carefully and makes smarter, more balanced decisions. In the end, diversity can make getting along more difficult — and that’s exactly why it’s so helpful.

This article is the sixth installment in NLI’s series, Groupthink: The Master Class, a 6-week campaign to help leaders understand the science behind identifying — and eliminating — groupthink.

Click here to download “The Business Case: How Diversity Defeats Groupthink”

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