Methodological and theoretical problems with Janis' groupthink theory

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

11 Pages, Grade: 67


Groupthink is “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” and “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgement that results from in-group pressure (Janis, 1982, p. 9). Therefore it is seen as a process which turns competent and prolific groups into incompetent and unproductive ones on the basis of defective decision making.

In this paper I will introduce the original concept of groupthink to later refer to some important theoretical modifications. I will also refer to some problems associated with the research. Finally I will take group cohesiveness as an example to illustrate why researchers have not come to a unified conclusion regarding groupthink theory.

Janis (1972) noted that several foreign policy decisions carried out over time by different US government administration had a similar conclusion: disaster. Therefore he reviewed several of them in order to give consistence to his groupthink idea. Specifically Janis analyzed in hindsight the following policies: (1) the lack of defence of Pearl Harbor in 1942, (2) the decision in 1950 to intensify the Korean War, (3) the Bay of Pigs invasion, (4) and the decision during 1964-1967 to escalate the Vietnam War. Janis also compared these fiascos with two other cases where good policy decisions provided the desirable outcome. These were the decision of avoiding economical chaos in some European countries after WW II by implementing the Marshall Plan, and the successful treatment of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. From this analysis, several antecedents, symptoms and consequences were inferred giving cue to what it is known now as Groupthink. However, Janis’ formulation of the Groupthink theory was not complete until 1982, when two new antecedents were added after the analysis and testing of the Watergate cover-up.

Groupthink is described (Janis, 1982) as a linear model, where the presence of some known antecedents will foster radical and precipitate concurrence seeking, that in turn will bring into the open several symptoms of groupthink, which will finally lead to premature defective decision-making.

For Janis (1982) group cohesion constitutes the potential basic antecedent, that is to say, its presence is necessary for groupthink whenever it is accompanied by more antecedents. In other words, the sole presence of group cohesion will not develop groupthink. The rest of the antecedents can be clustered into two groups: structural faults (insulation of group, lack of impartial leadership, lack of norms for methodical procedures, and homogeneity of group) and provocative context (high stress from external threats and low self-esteem). It is important to state that the latter group exerts higher influence than the former group on whether group cohesion will lead to groupthink (McCauley, 1998). However, this does not mean that structural faults are dispensable in the context of the theory, as their mere presence or absence will have a remarkable impact (by means of interaction) on the potential expression of the groupthink tendency. If this tendency is followed and premature concurrence seeking is reached, a variety of observable symptoms of both, groupthink and defective decision-making will come out. Groupthink symptoms can also be clustered into three groups: Overestimation of the group (illusion of invulnerability and belief in the inherent morality of the group), Closed-Mindedness (collective rationalization and stereotypes of outgroups) and finally, Uniformity Pressures (self-censorship, illusion of unanimity, direct pressure on dissenters, and self-appointed mindguards). Defective decision-making symptoms includes the incomplete survey of alternatives and objectives, failure to examine risks of preferred choice and to reappraise, poor and selective information search, and failure to contingency plan.

The success of Janis` theory of Groupthink (1972, 1982) is unquestionable as well as controversial. It quickly reached its acceptance and posterior influence in a diverse range of disciplines such as psychology, political science, computer science, management, military science, marketing, etc. Furthermore, it was rapidly accepted by a substantial part of the scientific community and subsequently by the general population, as an incontestable truth (see Fuller & Aldag, 1998). Nonetheless a growing evidence of empirical uncertainties and theoretical bewilderment attained over the years has prompted some authors to overtly disregard with the idea of groupthink to the point of asserting that “groupthink has developed the feel of an urban legend enthusiastically spread and showing similar resistance to disconfirmation” (Fuller & Aldag, 1998, p.266).

Has this statement gone too far? Is groupthink a valid phenomenon based on empirical support or is it an urban legend? Its popularity is as unquestionable as its capacity to be blindly accepted outside the area of psychology[1], therefore it is not surprising that a quick search of groupthink using the Google search engine reveals 131.000 hits; while using the same search engine but in its scholar version shows 2020 hits; however it is believed that groupthink has been empirically investigated in no more than 25 papers (Turner & Pratnakis, 1998; Esser, 1998). This apparent lack of interest by academics is not gratuitous, as Turner and Pratnakis (1998) pointed out that groupthink is a concept difficult to research, on the one hand because it involves group research, and on the other hand because it comprises several numbers of independent and dependent variables, and in more extent because of its theoretical ambiguities. Regarding this last issue it is fair to state that Janis (1982) considered his proposal as a foundation theory that probably should be revised and modified in years to come. In fact this future finally came but somewhat late; ten years had to pass until an important theoretical review (Turner, Pratkanis, Probasco, & Leve, 1992; Turner & Pratkanis, 1998) came into the light to solve some ambiguous aspects of the theory which had led to some degree of “anarchy” as many researchers tended to take advantage of its ambiguity in order to give consistency to the phenomenon (Fuller & Aldag, 1998).


[1]Especially in the Business area. For example in a recent paper, Eaton (2001) takes for good Morgan words (1986, p. 202): “groupthink has been reproduced in thousands of decision making situations in organizations of all kinds”.

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Methodological and theoretical problems with Janis' groupthink theory
Nottingham Trent University
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Marcos Alonso Rodriguez (Author), 2005, Methodological and theoretical problems with Janis' groupthink theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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