What is groupthink, what are the symptoms and how to prevent it

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Kevin Mangelschots

Groupthink, like anything in life, has both advantages and disadvantages. However, the dangers of groupthink are substantial.

Sometimes, this particular sheep herd mentality is positive and easy because one can follow what the majority of people are doing, since that will generally be the “right” or sensible thing.

Let’s take a look at what groupthink in truth is.

What is groupthink?

Multiple possible questions being written on a wooden board.

Groupthink can be defined as being a psychological phenomenon that happens within a group of people when the desire for harmony and conformity of the group is more important than each individual’s thoughts, ideas, and goals. This often results in a dysfunctional, often irrational decision-making outcome.

And while cohesiveness of the group is frequently considered more critical than the thoughts, ideas, and goals of each individual of a group, this can come at a high, and even devastating price.

This particular tendency for all group members to agree at all costs and, thus, minimize conflict among the group members can cause a group to reach a consensus decision without personal critical evaluation.

This can can be particularly dangerous if a group turns malevolent.

Causes of groupthink

Illustration of a man scratching their head while holding a yellow question mark.

There’s a great amount of potential causes of groupthink.

Hogg & Vaughan (2018) has reported that excessive group harmony and cohesiveness appears to be a significant source of groupthink.

Studies have identified a couple of contributing factors. These factors are:

  1. Excessive group cohesiveness
  2. Exclusion of external opinion and influence
  3. Lack of impartial leadership
  4. Ideological congruence
  5. High perceived stress from external threat

And while those potential factors probably won’t say much on their own, it’ll all become clear after we explore those causes of groupthink more in-depth.

Potential causes of groupthink explained

Image describing the dangers of group consensus.

  • Excessive group cohesiveness

    One example of the potential causes of groupthink bias is excessive group cohesiveness.

    An extravagant amount of group togetherness and harmony can lead to groupthink due to individuals of a group exhibiting too little skepticism and thus, employing too few critical thinking skills in the process. 

    Excessive group cohesiveness can lead to ignorance for thoughts and ideas from people outside of one’s own group.

  • Exclusion of external opinions and influences

    Image of a man holding out his hand, indicating he's telling to stop.

    Keeping an open mind is an important aspect to prevent groupthink from taking place.

    Problems start to arise when individuals of a group start excluding external opinions and influences of people outside the group.

    Significant to know is that there’s a whole variety of individual differences between people in general and groups. Thus, it’s only logical that other people will have different opinions than us from time to time. Different ideas, opinions, and point of views are necessary in order to improve society.

  • Lack of impartial leadership

    When a leader lacks impartiality, strong prejudices and biases to members outside the group will be made.

    Impartial leadership means trying to engage and interact with people without any biases and as objectively as possible.

    A lack of impartial leadership inherently puts a negative bias on people outside one’s own group from the start, while simultaneously rating members from the leader’s group as inherently more preferable and superior.

  • Ideological congruence

    Sometimes, individuals and groups can become ideologically possessed.

    This means that only thoughts, ideas, values, and principles that align with one’s ideologies are searched out and accepted.

    A group strives for harmony. But taking this group cohesiveness too far and being overly ideological congruent and harmonious with the other group members and their values, principles, ideas, thoughts, and general “way of thinking” can lead to groupthink.

  • High perceived stress from external threat

    When we are in, or at least perceive a high amount of external threat, our natural instinct kicks in and leads us to form a tight group in order to defend ourselves better. And what better way to protect ourselves than power in numbers?

    In times of danger, cohesiveness of a group is even more important than in times of peace and prosperity, in order to keep the group members focused on the threat instead of potential infighting and conflict with one’s own group members.

Symptoms of groupthink

A man having symptoms with the word “symptoms” written in white letters over him.

We have done the research and have found the following common symptoms that indicate group thinking behavior:

  1. Feeling of invulnerability and absolute consensus

    It’s normal to feel more secure and powerful when surrounded by a group of like-minded people rather than standing alone.

    However, if taken too far, this more secure feeling can turn into a sense of invulnerability because “everyone in my group thinks the same as me and therefore, everyone will support and protect me if needed.”

    And while each person has their individual thoughts, ideas and goals, no matter how similar some people might be to us, this also means that there can never be an absolute consensus. But in extreme cases of group think, an absolute consensus is expected and even required.

  2. Unquestioning belief

     

    One of the key symptoms of groupthink is an unquestioning belief regarding thoughts and ideas.

    Another possible symptom includes an unquestioning belief of one group’s goals, ideals, ideas, and thoughts.

    Questioning the group’s identity and decisions are not allowed and will be met with punishment. Often times in the form of verbal abuse, being excluded and in extreme cases, physical violence.

    And since every individual is different, it’s impossible for people who are not possessed by groupthink to think the same as everyone else.

  3. Ignoring or discrediting valid information

     

    Image of three men sitting against a wall with a mask. The first one is covering his mouth, the middle one is covering his eyes, and the last one is covering his ears, depicting willful ignorance.

    Closely related to confirmation bias.

    Only information affirming one’s own ideas and thoughts, no matter how factually wrong, are searched after. Simultaneously, all information discrediting one’s own beliefs is discredited and thrown away as “incorrect”.

    Why do people exhibit this particular behavior?

    Oftentimes, no matter what people might say, we desperately try to protect ourselves and our fragile ego’s from pain. The truth hurts and thus, people often don’t want to hear the harsh truths that might challenge their beliefs.

    That’s why a lot of people basically search out information reaffirming their beliefs while tossing out information challenging their beliefs.

    This gives the illusion that their thought process is right and that everyone else’s ideas and thoughts are wrong.

    Often times extreme pressure is put on skeptics and dissidents trying to weaken and ridicule other people’s beliefs while simultaneously strengthening their own.

  4. Stereotyping out-group members

     

    Image of a woman whispering to another man about an oblivious young man in front wearing headphones.

    When group cohesion gets overly strong, individuals outside the group can get stereotyped or ridiculed in an attempt to strengthen the group while weakening other groups or individuals outside one’s own group.

    Of course, being different and not adhering to someone’s ideals is no crime and is even to be admired. But to people caught up in this sheep herd mentality, this kind of behavior is considered not done and seen as a disgrace.

  5. Rationalization

    Rationalization in regard to groupthink can take the form of team members convincing themselves that, despite information and evidence to the contrary, the decision they are making or have made is still the best one.

    Common examples are: “Other people disagree with me because they can’t understand my decision-making.” or “Other people disagree because they haven’t researched the topic as extensively as we did.”

    And while both examples can in fact be relevant and factually correct, when rationalizing, this is often not the case.

  6. Peer Pressure

    When a team member voices a thought, idea or goal that deviates from the norm of the group, other members will work together in an attempt to pressure, punish and coerce the deviating group member into compliance.

    An example of peer pressure in action might be: “Well if you don’t agree with us then maybe you should not be a member of the team anymore.”

  7. Complacency

    It’s lonely at the top. And people at the foot of the mountain are oftentimes more hungry than the ones at the top.

    Those quotes convey the meaning of complacency. When experiencing success, people can get complacent and as a result, stop trying and caring as hard as they did in the beginning, before experiencing successes.

    Furthermore, complacency can lead to arrogance and, as a result, trick teams into thinking that “every decision we take is the right one.”

    “The history of our company speaks for itself. We are the best and no other company comes close to our quality.”

  8. Moral High Ground

     

    Humans tend to perceive themselves as better than they truly are. We like to stroke our own egos. We view ourselves as better, stronger, more competent and morally superior to whom we actually are.

    This turns into a real problem if every group member perceives him/herself as moral and, by default, the other members as well.

    Thus, when morality is used as the foundation and standard for decision-making, the peer pressure to conform is extremely high since no one wants to be perceived as immoral.

    “Since we are all moral individuals, we all know that this decision is the right one and that all other decisions are wrong by default.”

    When individuals think of themselves as being moral, they also perceive themselves as less likely or even unable to make mistakes or wrong decisions.

  9. Censorship

    Groupthink often includes team members censoring their true thoughts, opinions, ideas, and goals in order to conform. This can in turn lead to censorship in one’s group.

    “If everyone in this group agrees with me, then all other ideas, thoughts and opinions must be wrong.”

    Information gathered is censored in order to conform and support one’s existing ideas, while simultaneously blocking out or weakening challenging information.

    “That article is nonsense. They don’t know what they’re talking about and haven’t done any credible research.”

Possible dangers of groupthink

Picture showing four blindfolded men following each other walking towards the edge of a cliff to symbolize groupthink.

  • The group isn’t always right

    Groupthink mentality does have its advantages, but can be dangerous as well. Since the group is not always right and doesn’t take into account individual differences between people.

    And because the group isn’t always right, this can lead to bad, even outright dangerous decisions being made.

  • Doesn’t include individual thoughts and feelings

    Groupthink is based on collectivism, which means that the harmony and values of the group are more important than individual values, principles, thoughts, and ideas.

    This can be dangerous because it doesn’t take into account individual differences and thus, the personal thoughts, ideas, and goals of each individual. This can in turn lead to individuals feeling neglected.

  • Can be dangerous if the group turns malevolent

     

    Picture of a man looking menacing in front of him with a laptop beside him.

    One of the dangers of groupthink is that it can be dangerous if the group turns malevolent.

    Furthermore, thinking like and following the herd mentality is negative and dangerous if the group happens to turn malevolent

    We need to think individually and take our own personal responsibility in order to prevent a group and society as a whole from turning malevolent.

  • Doesn’t include an individual’s goals

    In order to reach our individual goals, thinking individually is required.

    The goals and purposes of a group are different from those of an individual. That’s why we need to think for ourselves and go after our personal goals, which might not always be possible or appreciated by the group.

  • Blindness to potential problems

    Groupthink mentality can breed stupidity and ignorance, which means potential problems can be downright missed or ignored.

    To counteract this, applying individual critical thinking skills are a must.

  • Breeding ignorance

     

    Funny illustration saying, “ignoring you is beginning to hurt.”

    Since the group’s values, principles and ideas are considered more significant than those of the individuals, it’s possible that only the information and other people who conform to those values, principles, ideas, and thoughts are sought out.

    This means that the group can become ignorant to people with different thoughts, ideas, and even to the possibility of different ideas and thoughts existing that deviate from the group altogether.

  • Resistance to new ideas

    Since the group values harmony above individual goals, ideas and thoughts, the group might be surprisingly resistant to new ideas, even though those new ideas can be good and lead to future success and prosperity.

  • Exclusion of other groups and people outside the group

     

    Image of multiple pawns standing together with one pawn standing separated alone.

    Groupthink can breed discrimination and can drive a wedge between different groups due to each groups’ inevitable different principles and values.

    This means that at it’s worst, groupthink can potentially leave to the exclusion of other groups and individuals who are not currently residing inside the group.

Now that we’ve established the possible dangers and pitfalls of groupthink, let us explain how to avoid groupthink.

How to avoid groupthink?

It is possible to learn how to avoid groupthink bias.

The key is to remain a healthy amount of skepticism and, as a result of that skepticism, having the ability and daring to think critically.

Conclusion

Image of a hand holding a card with the word “conclusions” written in blue.

Caution is advised since people generally think less critically due to the perceived safety in numbers and because individual needs, ideas, and thoughts are not always reciprocated in a group.

However, realizing the symptoms when this toxic behavior is occurring is one thing, but action is required in order to protect oneself and other people alike.