Groupthink and focus groups
Have you ever sat in a group discussion and stayed quiet because you were worried that you were wrong, or that everyone else had a different opinion from yours? Most of us have been a victim of ‘groupthink’ in one way or another. It affects political discussions, work meetings, focus groups and pretty much any situation in which groups try to solve a problem, or come to a consensus decision. Groupthink was first talked about by Irving Janis in the 1970s and has been used to explain bad decision-making in many different contexts. But before I talk about how it has an effect on work or focus groups, let’s focus on one of the prime examples of groupthink:
The Attack on Pearl Harbour
Before Pearl Harbour was attacked on 7th December 1941, internal Japanese messages had been intercepted and it was discovered that they were preparing for an attack in the Pacific. As a result of this, Washington sent a warning to the officers stationed at Pearl Harbour. But why was this warning not taken seriously enough to prepare for the attack? Discussions led the Navy and Army to conclude that the attack was unlikely, and they rationalised their opinion in many different ways. They assumed that the attack would only happen as a response to the US attacking Japan, and that Japan would surely not be crazy enough to start a war that they couldn’t win. Also, the officers thought that even if the attack should happen, they would be able to detect and destroy the fleets before they could reach the base. What does groupthink have to do with these conclusions, and how does it affect our everyday decision-making?
When Janis developed his theory, he named three groups of symptoms that groups suffer from when making a decision: overestimating the group, closed-mindedness and pressure towards uniformity.
Overestimating the Group
According to Janis, group members overestimate their group in two ways: They think they are invulnerable, and they don’t question the morality of their group and the decision it makes. Pearl Harbour suffered from both of these: Overestimating the power of their country (which led them to take the risk of not preparing), and believing to be in the right, supporting the right cause, and therefore ignoring the consequences of their actions (or non-actions in this case). Focus groups are more strongly influenced by the first factor: They are a completely invulnerable group, because they will never be held accountable for their decisions. This encourages the group members to voice support for riskier options than necessary, which can end up costing a company millions.
But you don’t need to overestimate the group in order to make bad decisions: Group members also tend to rationalise their group decisions and stereotype those who aren’t part of the group. In the Pearl Harbour example, both of these factors played a role. The officers used rationalisations to ignore the warning signs and stereotyped the Japanese army as being too weak and scared to attack the US base. In focus groups, these factors are seen in a more subtle way. The aim of focus groups (and most work discussions) is to come to a consensus decision, which means that they are prone to ignore minority opinions. Additionally, focus groups assume that their opinion is representative of everyone ‘in their right mind’, and ignores people who aren’t represented in the group. Most of the closed-mindedness of focus groups, however, stems from the third group of symptoms:
Pressure toward Uniformity
The pressure toward uniformity arguably has a lot to do with the fact that groups try to reach a consensus decision, and Janis describes the symptoms related to this in four different ways: Self-censorship, illusions of unanimity, direct pressure to conform and mind guards. Self-censorship is exactly what I talked about in the beginning of this post; if you feel that everyone else’s opinion is different from yours, you are reluctant to speak up. This is especially true if you feel that others are more powerful than you (probably the case in the Pearl Harbour discussion) or if you don’t hold particularly strong opinions (as seen in focus groups – would you start a fight over a new bottle design?). This can result in the illusion of unanimity, because the group assumes that silence is a form of agreement. The direct pressure to conform and ‘mind guards’, people who deliberately shield you from dissenting information, might not play as obvious a role in the work environment and focus groups (one would hope), but might influence political decision-making.
Does this mean that all group discussions are automatically doomed and can never come to a good decision? No, but it helps to be aware of group dynamics and how they can influence your discussion. Next time you are in a meeting, speak up (especially if you don’t agree with the rest of the group!) and try to not get carried away with the flow of the discussion. Be realistic about your options, advantages and risks, and you might be able to reduce the influence that groupthink has on your decision-making.