A: Though New York City is a haven for the independent-minded, we are often tasked with making decisions in group settings, whether it’s at home, work, school, or out on the town. And though we rely on our friends and colleagues to inform our decisions, we must caution the insidious affects of groupthink.
Groupthink is defined as a poor decision that is made when a group collectively influences each other. This psychological phenomenon was coined by a Yale psychologist, Irving Janis, in response to John F. Kennedy’s notorious Bay of Pigs imbroglio. Shortly after JFK took office, he made the risky decision to invade Cuba in an attempt to oust Fidel Castro. By all accounts, this decision is recorded in history as a failure, and one that JFK and his administration should have seen coming. Still, JFK had some of the best and brightest working for him. How then, could the President and his cabinet make this sort of egregious error in judgment?
Janis found that groupthink can occur when the group is made up of individuals with similar backgrounds and similar characteristics. Not only did they come to the same conclusions because they had similarities, but also they steadfastly trusted each other’s opinions because of those similarities.
People also fall prey to groupthink due to a psychological process known as the illusion of vulnerability, where a group is overly confident that they’ve made the right decision and fails to evaluate alternatives. We’re also inclined to make errors in judgment in group settings for fear of being ostracized. It feels good to have our opinions validated, which makes it risky to voice dissent.
While it’s good to have a number of people weigh in on certain topics, it’s important to be cognizant of groupthink. Psychologists suggest that just being aware that the pernicious phenomenon exists can mitigate the affect when making decisions. Alternatively, we can prevent groupthink by allowing others from the outside to weigh in on the decision — namely if they are dissimilar from the group (in personality and demographics). Some psychologists have suggested that the leader, whether that be the president, CEO, or director step away when a group makes significant decisions. This way, the group can talk freely. When in a group, consider what everyone has to say, but don’t let the opinions of others be your ultimate guide.
Kristine Keller received her Master’s in psychology from New York University.
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