What is groupthink? This concept was first spoken about by social psychologist Irving Janis and journalist William H. Whyte. According to them, it’s a phenomenon where members of a group begin to think erroneously.
This happens because group members want to keep a feeling of overall unity and/or harmony within the group, and this leads to dissenting voices being silenced. Unfortunately, it also leads to a situation where team members end up making poor decisions. To make this easier to understand, here is a deeper explanation and some real-world examples of groupthink.
Top Characteristics of Groupthink
- An illusion of invulnerability
- An illusion of unanimity
- Pressure to conform
- Closed mindedness
- Isolation of the group
- Pressure to self-censor
Best Known Examples of Groupthink
1. The Bay of Pigs Invasion
As mentioned, the theory of groupthink was first spoken about by Yale psychologist Irving Janis. He wrote about this phenomenon in the 1972 publication titled Victims of Groupthink a Psychological Study of Foreign-policy Decisions and Fiascoes. In this book, he provides the reader with several examples of poor group decision-making.
One of these examples is the Bay of Pigs Invasion. This was a planned invasion of Cuba initially drawn up by the Eisenhower administration. Once President Kennedy came into power, the plan was immediately put into action.
The government did this without questioning the basic assumptions of this plan and without undertaking any further investigation. The invasion ended up being an enormous failure, and people directly blamed the Kennedy administration. What’s also interesting to note is that this event paved the way for the Cuban Missile Crisis.
2. The Pearl Harbor Attack
This is an excellent example of groupthink theory. Weeks before the attack, hundreds of communications were intercepted from Japan. These communications confirmed that an attack was imminent. Despite this, the Pearl Harbor command didn’t actually believe that the Japanese would attack. Why would they risk war with a much stronger enemy?
The command was also more concerned with Japanese citizens living in Hawaii – who they believed were a far bigger threat to Pearl Harbor. As we now know, the United States’ decision to ignore this critical information proved was an immense disaster.
3. The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster
Here’s another famous example of groupthink. Engineers of the space shuttle repeatedly voiced concerns about the safety of the Challenger. Despite this, group leaders within NASA choose to ignore these warnings.
This was mostly because they wanted to launch the shuttle on schedule. More specifically, it was because members of the team who designed the shuttle felt that the testing efforts were adequate.
4. Kony 2012 Viral Video
Kony 2012 was a documentary that focused on Ugandan war criminal and militia leader Joseph Kony. The purpose of this film was supposedly to start an international movement that would bring him to justice. The movie was highly successful and quickly went viral. It spread like wildfire over social media and had millions of views within days. In fact, it was actually the first video in the history of YouTube to break one million views.
In spite of this success, it was later discovered that most of the information in the film was incorrect. When this news hit the headlines, it proved to have dire consequences for the people behind the film (some were even arrested.) Not only was Kony 2012 a stunning example of the theory of groupthink in action, but it also shows how easily social networks can manipulate the public.
5. Insolvency of Swissair
The Swiss national carrier was once renowned for its financial stability. Due to high levels of liquidity, it was even known as the “flying bank.” During the 1990s, things started to change. Overconfidence and hubris led to a series of bad decisions, which eventually caused the airline to collapse.
Foremost of these was the ill-advised “hunter strategy” in which the airline attempted to expand by buying up smaller airlines. While this did give the airline easier access to the European market, things didn’t last. The airliner soon found itself overwhelmed by debt and was quickly insolvent.
What this example really teaches us is how groupthink impacts your problem-solving abilities. Even though incredibly intelligent people ran this airline, they couldn’t find a way out of the situation.
6. Kodak Cameras
At one point, Kodak was the world leader in camera technology. It seemed unbeatable, and this gave the company leaders a feeling of invulnerability. All of this changed once digital cameras arrived. Kodak succumbed to the symptoms of groupthink and flatly refused to adopt this new technology. This, along with a failure to make other important decisions, eventually led to the downfall of the company.
The strangest part of this story is that Kodak actually developed the world’s first digital camera. Instead of bringing this product to market, they dropped it to protect their lucrative film processing business. This is one of the more extreme cases of groupthink and proved disastrous. What was once the world’s No. 1 camera company now trails behind competitors like Canon, Sony, Nikon, and Samsung.
7. Escalation of the Vietnam War
One of the most significant moments of the Vietnam War was The Gulf of Tonkin incident. In case you don’t know, this was an event where North Vietnamese ships attacked the U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S.C. Turner Joy. This was seen as an act of aggression which led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which in turn escalated the Vietnam War. This escalation resulted in a bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder and the eventual deployment of American troops in Vietnam.
What makes this an example of groupthink and acting without enough information was the fact that North Vietnam did not actually attack the U.S. unprovoked. Later reports showed that America was the aggressor and provoked North Vietnam by supporting South Vietnamese forces, as well as supplying them with reconnaissance information.
8. Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad
In 2017, Kendall Jenner appeared in a highly controversial ad for Pepsi. This ad shows Jenner attending a protest march and climaxes with her handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer. Upon release, this ad sparked a huge outcry, resulting in it being pulled from television within a day. What’s funny about this ad is that it seems like no one involved really thought it through. They simply went ahead and ran the ad.
This shows an incredible failure of critical thinking and
decision-making. It also demonstrates that the makers paid little attention to the feelings of diverse groups. Ultimately, this advert probably happened due to ideological conformity created by political correctness.
9. The Switch to “New Coke”
By the mid-80s, Coke was in big trouble. The company was rapidly losing market share to Pepsi and other drinks. For example, the root cause of their problems was the growing popularity of fruit juices and diet sodas. To counter this, the company devised an audacious marketing plan. It would reformulate its product and release it as “New Coke.”
As far as wrong decisions go, this was a major blunder. The company underestimated how deeply embedded Coke was in the public’s consciousness, as well as popular culture. Within days of release, customers bombarded the company with angry complaints. The company hotline received more than 1,500 calls per day. In addition to this, the Coca-Cola company also received large amounts of negative press and attention. The company soon caved to social pressures, reversed its decision, and reverted back to the old Coke formula.
10. The 2003 Invasion of Iraq
In 2003, a multi-country coalition chose to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. The reason given for this war was supposedly that Hussein was stockpiling WMDs. New evidence later showed that Hussein did not actually have any WMDs.
According to experts, this happened because intelligence agents needed to please their superiors. The people in charge wanted Saddam to have these weapons, so agents only supplied information confirming their biases. Regardless of this, the public and news media went along with the lie, and this helped to create support for the invasion. Another aspect was the idea that Saddam was planning to launch attacks with these weapons. This added the feeling of time pressure to the groupthink.
11. The Salem Witch Trials
This historical event provides an excellent groupthink definition and explanation. The Salem Witch Trials are also a fantastic example of mass hysteria. From February 1692 to May 1693, the town charged more than 200 people with witchcraft. Of these people, 20 were later executed. It’s interesting to note how the community reached a consensus, based on almost no evidence.
This more than likely happened because the community wanted to keep group cohesiveness and harmony in the town. It’s also a great example of how small groups of people can have an outsized influence when it comes to groupthink. According to historical sources, a small group of teenage girls (led by a 17-year-old called Elizabeth Hubbard) instigated the trials when they began accusing others of witchcraft.
12. Enron Collapse
On December 2, 2001, energy giant Enron filed for bankruptcy. How did this happen to a company with revenues of more than $100 billion? There were dozens of reasons why (the biggest being accounting irregularities), but another answer was groupthink. This is according to a book by former Enron employee Sherron Watkins. She claims that a small group of individuals controlled Enron and had complete control over the companies decision-making processes. This group believed that it was possible to increase profits quarter after quarter.
When the company began to fail, they refused to listen to differing viewpoints or consider alternative courses of action. The negative effects of these faulty decisions eventually began to accumulate and eventually led to the collapse of the company.
13. David Letterman Joins CBS
In 1992, talk show Johnny Carson decided to retire from The Tonight Show. At this point, the board of broadcaster NBC had a critical decision to make. They could either replace the host with Jay Leno or David Letterman. Company president Bob Wright’s personal views ultimately overrode majority opinion he decided to hire comedian Jay Leno.
This was a catastrophic choice. Letterman accepted a contract from rival CBS, launched The Late Show with David Letterman, and went into direct competition with NBC – eventually winning the war for ratings and advertising money. Examples like these are why many boards now select a person who plays devil’s advocate. This is essentially a member who argues against the group’s accepted opinion. Doing this helps these types of groups make better decisions.
14. 12 Angry Men
Juries can also fall victim to groupthink. Members may alter their own opinions for the sake of group cohesion. Some members may also do this because they want to seem like a team players.
According to studies, this also happens due to the status of some members. It’s been found that members with better jobs and education have a great amount of influence over lesser members and can persuade them to change their verdict. A great example of this is the movie 12 Angry Men.
15. The American Auto Industry
Leaders in this industry believed that America (and by extension the world) wanted big, gas-guzzling cars. In reality, it was the exact opposite. Consumers wanted a new look. They preferred smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. This need was soon fulfilled by Japanese automakers.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the American auto industry stubbornly clung to this belief, only changing their views after losing significant market share to Japanese car manufacturers.
16. Doctors Recommending Smoking
Believe it or not, there was actually a time when smoking was seen as good for you or even healthy. Not only that, doctors advertised these cigarettes and recommended smoking for people with sore throats. These doctors were obviously a victim of groupthink and refused to alter their claims despite growing evidence that cigarettes caused health issues. It was only when the evidence became undeniable that these doctors reversed their claims.
What this example also shows us is how the use of experts can influence people.
17. The 2008 Financial Crises
There are dozens of reasons why the market crashed. One of these reasons was groupthink in the financial industry. The people involved in this industry refused to believe that anything could go wrong. House prices would continue to rise no matter what.
What actually happened was that an economic bubble steadily grew and eventually popped. This caused widespread devastation and financial ruin for many people.
18. The Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies is a 1954 novel by British author William Golding. It tells the story of a group of boys stranded on an island during a fictional World War 3. A social group in this type of group setting can quickly develop conformity for the sake of cohesion. Unsurprisingly, this quickly happens, and the boys soon descend into anarchy and chaos. An example of this is when a larger group of boys begins to victimize an overweight boy, culminating in his murder.
This book also demonstrates that the likelihood of groupthink greatly increases when you remove outside influences.
19. The Watergate Scandal
When the Washington Post broke Watergate, it caused a national scandal and led to Richard Nixon resigning. Some people have classified this event as an example of groupthink. This is because Nixon had an inner group of people who were fiercely loyal to him.
This group soon turned toxic and was no longer qualified to make good decisions. Isolated from dissenting opinions, they thought of themselves as invincible. The group also believed they were morally right and pressured other people to agree with them.
20. Nazi Germany
One symptom of groupthink is a fanatical need to carry out decisions made by the team leader, project manager, or person in charge (no matter how horrific these decisions are.) In the case of Nazi Germany, this is what clearly happened. Hitler used his understanding of group dynamics and above-average ability for public speaking to hold an entire nation in sway. This eventually led to the outbreak of World War 2, the deaths of millions of people, and different groups being oppressed.
21. Mean Girls
Mean Girls is a 2004 teenage comedy film that has since become a cult-classic. The film centers on a group of girls who come together to bully and ostracize another girl. This group of girls (known as The Plastics) routinely engage in groupthink. They follow their leader fanatically and blindly go along with anything she tells them to do.
The girls also believe that everything they do is right and discard their personal opinions. What’s more, they also believe that their actions are morally justified and are actually a good thing.
22. The Wave
The Wave is a 2008 film that explores the phenomena of groupthink and how it creates highly cohesive groups. Based on an in-class social experiment by the American teacher and author Ron Jones, this exercise helped to show students why Germans accepted the Nazi Party and fell beneath Hitler’s spell. In this experiment, Jones told students he was starting a fictional movement known as “The Third Wave.” He then took various beliefs held by the Nazi Party and passed these off as the aims of his movement.
For example, he explained to students that the eventual aim of the movement was to “eliminate democracy.” Accompanying this was a series of exercises and rules which students had to follow. One of these rules required that students stand up when answering questions and begin their answer by saying “Mr. Jones.” The experiment took place over five days, and each day added more rules and beliefs. On the fifth day, Ron told students that they were going to watch a video. This video then explained that they were part of a social experiment.
23. The Ice Bucket Challenge
What started out as a challenge to bring awareness to the motor neuron disease ALS soon spiraled into a terrifying example of groupthink. In this challenge, participants dumped a bucket of ice water over their heads and uploaded the video to social media.
This challenge quickly went viral, and millions of people took part, without really knowing what the purpose of the stunt was. And although groups like the ALS Association received millions in extra funding, most people had no idea that there were positive intentions behind this challenge. In the end, it became nothing more than a way to seek attention on social media.
24. Cancel Culture
“Cancel culture” is another blatantly obvious example of groupthink. This phenomenon embodies the worst aspects of this concept, including the total belief that the group is in the right. All it takes is one accusation, and an unthinking lynch mob will descend on you. Victims of cancel culture are convicted without trial and may have their careers, lives, and families destroyed. Worst of all, there’s almost nothing they can do about it. And yes, there are people who genuinely deserve cancellation, but many people are innocent victims.
One of the features of groupthink is that such groups often have exaggerated beliefs in their abilities. A good example of this is Mensa. Members of this group believe they are geniuses when in fact, many have only average intelligence. Their higher intelligence also makes them believe that whatever they think is right.
Some people actually believe that this organization is a scam. Considering that Mensa charges hefty membership fees, this could actually be true.
Groupthink can occur any time you involve a group of people in decision-making. This can have disastrous consequences for the group. The best way to avoid this phenomenon is to make yourself aware of it (studying the above examples will help.) It’s also important that you practice open-mindedness in your thinking and base your decisions on a variety of viewpoints. Also, avoid spending too much time with the group and seek outside advice.
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