In my studies of high-level governmental decision-makers, both
civilian and military, I have found eight main symptoms of groupthink.
Most or all of the members of the in-group share an illusion of
invulnerability that provides for them some degree of reassurance about
obvious dangers and leads them to become over-optimistic and willing to take
extraordinary risks. It also causes
them to fail to respond to clear warnings of danger.
Victims of groupthink ignore warnings:
they also collectively construct rationalizations in order to discount
warnings and other forms of negative feedback that, taken seriously, might
lead the group members to reconsider their assumptions each time they
recommit themselves to past decisions.
James C. Thompson, Jr., a Harvard historian who spent five years as an
observing participant in both the State Department and the White House, tells
us that the policy-makers avoided critical discussion of their prior
decisions and continually invented new rationalizations so that they could
sincerely recommit themselves to defeating the North Vietnamese.
Victims of groupthink believe unquestionably in the inherent morality
of their in-group. This belief
inclines the members to ignore the ethical and moral consequences of their
decisions. Evidence that this symptom
is at work usually is of a negative kind - the things that are left unsaid in
Victims of groupthink hold stereotypes views of the leaders of enemy
groups: they are so evil that genuine
attempts at negotiating differences with them are unwarranted, or they are
too stupid or too weak to deal effectively with whatever attempts the in-group
makes to defeat their purposes, no matter how risky the attempts are.
Victims of groupthink apply direct pressure to any individual who
momentarily expresses doubt about any of the group's shared illusions or who
questions the validity of the arguments supporting a policy alternative
favored by the majority. This gambit
reinforces the concurrence-seeking norm that loyal members are expected to
Victims of groupthink avoid deviating from what appears to be group
consensus; they keep silent about their misgivings and even minimize the
importance of their doubts.
Victims of groupthink share an illusion of unanimity within the group
concerning almost all judgments expressed by members who speak in favor of
the majority view. This symptom
results partly from the preceding one, whose affects are augmented by the
false assumption that any individual who remains silent during any part of
the discussion is in full accord with what the others are saying. When a group of persons who respect each
others' opinions arrives at a unanimous view, each member is likely to feel
that the belief must be true. This
reliance on consensual validation within the group tends to replace
individual critical thinking and reality testing, unless there are clear-cut
disagreements among the members. To avoid such an unpleasant state, the
members often become inclined, without quite realizing it, to prevent latent
disagreements from surfacing when they are about to initiate a risky course
of action. The group leaders and the
members support each other in playing up the areas of convergence in their
thinking, at the expense of fully exploring divergences that might reveal
Victims of groupthink sometimes appoint themselves as mindguards to protect the leader and fellow member from
adverse information that might break the complacency they shared about the
effectiveness and morality of past decisions.
When a group of executives frequently have most or all of these
symptoms, a detailed study of their deliberations is likely to reveal a
number of immediate consequences.
These consequences are, in effect, products of poor decision making
practices because they lead to inadequate solutions to the problems under
the group limits its discussions to a few alternative courses of action
(often only two) without an initial survey of all the alternatives that might
be worthy of consideration.
the group fails to reexamine the course of action initially preferred by the
majority after they learn the risks and drawbacks they had not considered
the members spend little or no time discussing whether there are nonobvious gains they may have overlooked or ways of
reducing the seemingly prohibitive costs that made rejected alternatives
appear undesirable to them.
members make little or no attempt to obtain information from experts within
their own organizations who might be able to supply more precise estimates of
potential losses and gains.
members show positive interest in facts and opinions that support their
preferred policy; they tend to ignore facts and opinions that do not.
members spend little time deliberating about how the chosen policy might be
hindered by bureaucratic inertia, sabotaged by political opponents, or
temporarily derailed by common accidents.
Consequently, they fail to work out contingency plans to cope with foreseeable setbacks that
could endanger the overall success of their chosen course.
The search for explanation of why groupthink occurs has led me through
a quagmire of complicated theoretical issues in the murky area of human motivation. My belief, based on recent social
psychological research, is that we can best understand the various symptoms
of groupthink as a mutual effort among the group members to maintain
self-esteem and emotional equanimity by providing social support to each
other, especially at times when they share responsibility for making vital