Janis Groupthink

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Janis’ concept of Groupthink

Janis’ (1972) concept of Groupthink sets out symptoms and characteristics that can occur within cohesive groups. This behaviour can have significant negative influences on the decision making process within the group. Janis further classifies six main symptoms which can be found in groups suffering from Groupthink. The story of ‘The Bay of Pigs’, and the case study of the pharmaceutical industry, will help us to illustrate differences between the characteristics of the classical rational decision making process and the characteristics of Janis’ concept of Groupthink.

Janis defines the concept of Groupthink as “members of any small cohesive group tend to maintain esprit de corps by unconsciously developing a number of shared illusions and related norms that interfere with critical thinking and reality testing” (Janis, 1972, p.27). He uses the story of the Bay of Pigs, in which the US president John F. Kennedy tried to overthrow Castro in 1961 to explain the symptoms of Groupthink. According to his view there are six main symptoms which can be identified in groups suffering from Groupthink.

One of the most dangerous symptoms of groupthink is the illusion of invulnerability, in which the entire group believes to have unlimited power and confidence. Even if the plan seems to be risky the group, in its cohesive behaviour, believes to have the key to a guaranteed success (Janis, 1972). Buoyant optimism and overly positive thoughts and feelings arise within a group when members become cohesive. Janis (1972) further explains that a ‘new feeling of togetherness’ leads members to believe that they are part of a new and more powerful group. A further typical assumption of Groupthink is the classical stereotype to see an enemy as weak and incompetent. This can clearly be seen as part of the Groupthink concept as Janis describes it, but we need to look further to grasp the full picture. The US is a world power, thus organisational structure and culture within the various government departments tend to evolve around the idea of being invulnerable. Janis reduces the issues down to Groupthink and leaves out other possible explanations for the cause. In the pharmaceutical case study we can identify possible similar structures across the industry. The industries total sales revenue is an astonishing 400 billion US dollar per year, whereby Pfizer alone takes home nearly 10% of the total revenue. These examples allow us to draw parallels between, the position the US takes on the world stage, the similar position that Pfizer takes within the pharmaceutical industry and the illusion of invulnerability (Dylan, 1964).

The second symptom described by Janis is the illusion of unanimity. He describes it as “a group of people who respect each other’s opinions arrive at a unanimous view, each member is likely to feel that the belief must be true” (Janis, 1972, p.29). Especially the last part is concerning as members of the group “rely on consensual validation” ( Janis, 1972, p.27), which in turn moves all members away from assessing the situation critically. All members in the group are fully trusted and respected based on their experience, knowledge and history. Therefore other members are hesitant to react to the comments or suggestions made, rather than raising their own voice to express disagreement. Janis further explains that during meetings between President Kennedy and his advisers, there was a “curious atmosphere of assumed consensus” (1972, p.30). The assumed consensus was nothing more than an illusion, and also links in with the previous symptom of invulnerability as both of these symptoms seem to appear in conjunction as they are closely related.

The third symptom Janis names is ‘suppression of personal doubts’. According to Janis, members might feel reluctant to raise their concerns with the group as they assume that there is a widespread consensus among the group....
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