Groupthink Psychology: The Wisdom of the Crowd

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What is groupthink psychology? How does it affect decision-making within a group of people? Why is groupthink dangerous?

In psychology, groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group harmony overrides people’s critical thinking and autonomy. When groupthink takes hold, group members no longer challenge each other’s assumptions.

Keep reading to learn about groupthink psychology.

What Is Groupthink Psychology?

Groupthink is a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis to describe the ways that well-bonded teams gradually lose sight of critical thinking. They unconsciously develop a shared worldview, and group members take this unanimity as a sign that the group’s conclusions must be correct. 

The term “groupthink” might conjure up images of Big Brother and an Orwellian future society. In reality, groupthink usually creeps in unintentionally and can derail even the most well-intentioned teams. Teams with a strong belief in a shared mission might reinforce each other’s beliefs that support the mission and collectively ignore contradictory evidence or opinions. 

When this happens, the group forfeits all the benefits of aggregation. In order to be effective, the “wisdom of the crowd” has to represent the middle ground between a diverse group of independent opinions. When decisions are made collectively, those independent opinions get buried, and the result is a collective fabrication rather than an aggregate. 

The 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco is a classic example of the damaging effects of groupthink. In the lead-up to the invasion, the government team responsible for planning the operation ignored several red flags, including a front-page story in the New York Times that leaked all the details of the invasion plan. Beyond that, the team failed to notice that the plan itself contained massive oversights—like a contingency plan that required CIA-sponsored guerillas to hike through 80 miles of dense jungle. The lack of critical evaluation ultimately contributed to the utter failure of the invasion. 

Avoiding Groupthink

Avoiding groupthink is an important part of building a successful team. This sets the group up for success by ensuring that each member of the group forms their own judgments independently and has an opportunity to present their thoughts to the team. Each group member contributes a lens to the dragonfly eye that the whole team can then work together to synthesize. 

But synthesizing diverse ideas is easier said than done, and differing opinions can quickly escalate into arguments. Successful teams also need to learn to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Disrespect and outright rudeness aren’t helpful, but teams also need to avoid the opposite extreme of excessive politeness. When group members are afraid to contradict each other for fear of ruffling feathers, the lack of opposition may lead to the illusion that everyone agrees. This creates the perfect conditions for groupthink psychology to set in. 

Groupthink Psychology: The Wisdom of the Crowd

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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