When you fill a room with smart, capable people, why do decisions sometimes go so wrong? Janis has one hypothesis: They can become victims of "groupthink." Groupthink refers to (Page 9) ". . .deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures." Janis describes the dynamic thus (Page 5):
"In studies of social clubs and other small groups, conformity pressures have frequently been observed. Whenever a member says something that sounds out of line with the group's norms, the other members at first increase their communication with the deviant. . .But if they fail after repeated attempts, the amount of communication they direct toward the deviant decreases markedly. The members begin to exclude him. . . . [T]he more cohesive the group and the more relevant the issues to the goals of the group, the greater is the inclination of the members to reject a nonconformist." In short, groups will tend to reinforce their own views and reject the words of those who disagree. In this case, members of the group become "conformist to some conformity."
Janis uses several case studies of what he considers to be "groupthink"--The Bay of Pigs invasion, the escalation of the Korean War in 1950, the attack on Pearl Harbor while the "fortress slept," and escalation of the Viet Nam War. In each instance, according to Janis, top decision-makers walled themselves off from dissenting voices and tended to reinforce one another's preexisting positions. In counterpoint are two successes, where groupthink did not triumph--the Cuban Missile Crisis and the development of the Marshall Plan.
The thesis may be a bit simplistic, but it is abundantly clear from this book and from what we see around us that groupthink can be problematic. I suspect that one could argue that decisions such as the following, which appear to be one poor decision on top of another, may be examples of this phenomenon at work: Jimmy Carter's failed effort at a rescue mission to liberate the hostages in Iran; the plan to attack Iraq without any serious planning for what would happen afterwards; the dividing up of the Middle East into artificial countries after World War I. Readers can try to think of other examples, too--whether in politics, in their workplace, or in any other location where group decision-making takes place.
What to do? Some point out Franklin Roosevelt's style of getting input from many different advisors, this hearing an array of voices (although in the run up to Pearl Harbor, one doesn't find much of this in the President's Inner Circle). In the last chapter, Janis provides a number of suggestions as to how decision-making can be structured so as to reduce the odds of groupthink occurring (e.g., don't have the leader express preferences until all voices have been heard; have the leader encourage questions to be raised and then pay attention to those who dissent and taker their arguments seriously). These may not be earth shaking ideas, but they would, in Janis' view, at least reduce the odds of dire consequences coming from groupthink.
The first version of this book came out in the early 1970s, but it is still timely today.
- Paperback: 349 pages
- Publisher: Wadsworth ISE; 2 edition (19 May 1982)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780395317044
- ISBN-13: 978-0395317044
- ASIN: 0395317045
- Product Dimensions: 16 x 2.1 x 23.5 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 476 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 62,887 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)