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Groupthink: A Recipe for Disaster or a Beneficial Strategy?

Groupthink has been blamed for major historical disasters, but studies show there may be some benefit to it.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
May 23, 2023 1:00 PM
Young business people working together as a group on a project. A glowing light bulb as a new idea.


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Social scientists have noticed an interesting trend in the last few decades. Groupthink is blamed when something goes wrong, whether it’s a military failure, technological disaster or even an advertising campaign in poor taste.

Some social scientists say groupthink is also used to explain everyday healthcare and corporate management failures.

If groupthink is so bad, why do humans do it so much?

What is Groupthink?

Groupthink occurs when people go along with a group’s irrational ideas. The motivation to do so is typically caused by a desire to conform and keep harmony within the group. Researchers find there are benefits to thinking cohesively as a group. More so, we’re designed to do it because it was an evolutionary advantage for early humans.

Social scientists have argued that groupthink was an evolutionary strategy that helped early humans remain within the good graces of the tribes they relied on for food and protection. As one economics scholar put it, conformity was a “winning evolutionary strategy,” and it was more important to “look right than be right.”

Read More: Why Are Emotions Contagious?

Groupthink Psychology

The instinct to go along and get along still remains, and people continue to identify and uphold behaviors that benefit the group. As a result, group members tend to tolerate acts of self-sacrifice in order to advance the group’s needs or to remain in good standing with the group.

Being kicked out of a group for a disagreement no longer means a person is at risk of running into a woolly mammoth on their own. But group membership still provides people with a sense of identity, meaning and security.

Group membership is now primarily challenged through disagreements in how to view an issue or proceed in a particular situation. In these instances, going along with the group consensus is a way to not rock the boat and avoid exclusion.

Read More: The Psychology Behind Cults

Consequences of Groupthink

Maintaining status within a group might benefit an individual, but social scientists have theorized that groupthink can have devastating consequences. 

Psychologist Irving Janis first coined the term “groupthink” in the early 1970s. He applied it to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 to understand why the U.S. supported a doomed attack on Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

Janis argued that groupthink was a negative consequence in which a group of people made a poor decision together. He suggested groupthink happened among groups where people got along well and hated to disrupt harmony and cohesiveness by criticizing an idea or suggesting a different way forward.

Although he found that people deep within groupthink had a keep-the-peace mentality, Janis also saw they were capable of complete indifference to non-group members. They tended to distrust outsiders.

Read More: Collective Behavior and Why Some Crowds Get Out of Control

Example of Groupthink

Groupthink has been used to explain failures like the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster when a group of NASA employees allowed the launch to continue despite concerns about whether the shuttle’s crucial O-ring seals could function on a cold morning.

A Presidential commission examined the team’s decision-making and found major flaws consistent with groupthink. The team, for example, prioritized their group’s cohesiveness and failed to confront each other. They also disregarded opinions from outside experts who said the weather was too cold for the launch.

The Challenger disaster was an example of when groups made poor decisions. But some social scientists argue that groupthink can be beneficial in other instances. 

Read More: Looking Back at the Challenger Disaster

Benefits of Working in Groups

When people work together in groups, they bring their individual knowledge to the discussion, which is a form of pooling resources. Studies have found that people collectively tend to be better at coming up with a correct answer than an individual working alone.

It’s why people on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? use the “ask the audience” option when they are stumped on the answer. The audience was correct 91 percent of the time.

In addition to pooling resources, group discussion can force an open dialogue, which can have the benefit of challenging assumptions. People tend to bring their personal biases to their decision-making, and the group majority may question such biases and demand a person broaden their thinking.

Read More: The Secrets Of Cooperation

Benefits of Groupthink

Groupthink also has the benefit of allowing more timid members to suggest ideas they wouldn’t have the confidence to put forward if they had to represent the idea on their own. Getting input from people who typically shy away from speaking up helps to widen the perspective and diversify ideas.

The benefits of groupthink typically don’t emerge in a group with members that are too similar to each other because they likely have the same ideas and biases. Thus, their dialogue is redundant, and their pooling of resources doesn’t bring innovative information.  

Groupthink benefits are also limited if the people within the group are too focused on avoiding friction because they want to fit in or be liked, which is why social scientists tend to warn against the groupthink mentality. People innately want to be accepted by the others closest to them. After all, it’s a strategy that has worked for humans for thousands of years.

Read More: The Psychology of Cancel Culture

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