5.6 Groupthink: Definition & Examples
Have I Experienced Groupthink?
Have you ever been in a group where you felt that you had to go along with the majority even though you did not agree with the decision? Maybe you feel apprehensive about expressing opposition for fear of looking unsupportive. Perhaps you have had a leader or dominant team member who always tried to control contributions of other members, making it difficult to get a word in edgewise, so you just give up. If so, you may have had firsthand experience with the phenomenon known as groupthink. This lesson will explain the concept of groupthink and describe one of the most famous examples of groupthink – the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty or ineffective decisions for the sake of reaching a consensus. Groupthink stifles individual creativity and independent thinking in group members. Common sense, the desire to present and debate alternatives, and the confidence to express an unpopular opinion are sacrificed for group cohesion, which can significantly hinder the decision-making and problem-solving abilities of a group. Groups affected by groupthink will disregard realistic alternatives and typically choose more illogical approaches in an effort to maintain harmony within the group. As a result, the outcomes of decisions shaped by groupthink have a low probability of success.
A group is more vulnerable to groupthink when the group is composed of members with similar backgrounds, is highly cohesive, has no clear rules or defined processes for decision making, has an outspoken leader, or is isolated from outsiders. However, there are some preventative measures that can be taken to reduce the chances of groupthink, including:
• Define rules and processes for decision making and uphold them.
• Encourage full participation of every group member.
• Divide group members up into smaller brainstorming groups before sharing ideas with the larger group.
• Support debate and productive conflict in the group.
• Make it a priority to examine all alternatives before making a decision.
• Invite outside experts in to share their perspectives and insights with the group.
• Ask leaders to hold their opinions or ideas until after the group has had a chance to express their opinion.
• Have a designated evaluator or ‘devil’s advocate’ in the group to challenge ideas and decisions.
Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of groupthink can be found in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which occurred just after liftoff on January 28, 1986. If you were alive at that time, you may have watched this horrific tragedy unfold on live TV. But what most people did not know about that day was the events that led up to the explosion, and how they would forever change the lives of the seven crew members on board the Challenger on that fatal day. It is important to note that the Challenger explosion was caused by the hardware failure of a solid rocket booster (SRB) O-ring, but the decision made by NASA on that day was also flawed. The decision was simple (to launch or not to launch), the decision was flawed, and the decision was final.
On the day before the launch, NASA had received a warning from Thiokol – the subcontractor directly responsible for the development of the SRB O-rings – concerning the abnormally cold temperatures expected for the day of the launch, and the potential threat to performance it would bring to the O-ring. Because NASA had already delayed the launch for weather, it was not entertaining the idea of postponing it a second time for inclement weather conditions. NASA chose to rely on test results on the O-rings despite Thiokol’s warning that the system was also unreliable. Pressures were put on Thiokol engineers to conform to NASA’s desire to launch, so they asked to hold a private meeting. Within five minutes, Thiokol agreed, without any further objections, to proceed with the launch.
Remaining on schedule for the launch took priority over safety that day. Both parties feared public and political response to another launch cancellation. Any rationale offered to NASA to delay the launch was immediately dismissed. Pressure from NASA to recommend a launch placed Thiokol in a difficult position; many were concerned Thiokol would be expelled from the program if they did not do what NASA was asking of them. Finally, having a private meeting isolated the group, allowing groupthink to run its course in the group of Thiokol engineers. Up to this point, Thiokol had stayed with its recommendation to cancel the launch, but once isolated, that tenacity diminished.
This faulty decision-making on the eve of the Challenger launch would soon prove to be a fatal mistake. Just moments after the Challenger launched, the O-ring failed and the Challenger exploded. Seven brave men and women lost their lives that day due to groupthink.
While you may not deal with life-or-death situations in the groups that you are a part of, do know that groupthink can lead to ineffective decisions that can have negative consequences. By taking the steps mentioned earlier to reduce the chances of groupthink, you and your groups will have a much higher chance of avoiding groupthink-related negative outcomes.
Let’s review. Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty or ineffective decisions for the sake of reaching a consensus. Groups affected by groupthink will disregard realistic alternatives and typically choose more illogical approaches in an effort to maintain harmony within the group. As a result, the outcomes of decisions shaped by groupthink have a low probability of success. However, there are some preventative measures that can be taken to reduce the chances of groupthink.
Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of groupthink can be found in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Remaining on schedule for the launch took priority that day over safety. Group members fell victim to several circumstances that contributed to groupthink, which led to the decision to launch the Challenger despite knowing the potential for O-ring failure in extreme cold temperatures. This faulty decision making on the eve of the Challenger launch would soon prove to be a fatal mistake. Just moments after the Challenger launched, the O-ring failed and the Challenger exploded, causing seven crew members to lose their lives. This example serves as a reminder to all groups of the disastrous outcomes that result from groupthink, and the need to make an effort to take preventative measures to decrease it.