GROUPTHINKWilliam Whyte, 1952The U.S. businessman has long kept a suspicious eye on what’s been going on in Washington. Meantime some surprising things have been happening in his own backyard — subtle but pervasive changes in American ideas that ultimately may prove more decisive than anything that has occurred in politics or economics.Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. The Penn State abuse scandal has rekindled interest in the term“groupthink,” one that was coined in the pages of this magazine in 1952. What follows is the original article on Groupthink, which was part of the magazine’s Communication series.
A very curious thing has been taking place in this country — and almost without our knowing it. In a country where “individualism” — independence and self-reliance — was the watchword for three centuries, the view is now coming to be accepted thatthe individual himself has no meaning — except, thatis, as a member of a group. “Group integration,” “group equilibrimn,” “interpersonal relations,” “training for group living,” “group dynamics,” “social interaction,” “social physics”; more and more the notes are sounded — each innocuous or legitimate in itself, but together a themethat has become unmistakable.In a sense, this emphasis is a measure of success. We have had to learn how to get along in groups. With the evolution of today’s giant organizations — in business, in government, in labor, in education, in bigcities-we have created a whole new social structure
for ourselves, and one so complex that we’re still trying to figure out just what happened. But the American genius for cooperative action has served uswell “Human relations” may not be an American invention, but in no country have people turned so wholeheartedly to the job of mastering the group skills on which our industrial society places such a premium.But the pendulum has swung too far. Take, for example, the growing popularity of “social engineering” (FORTUNE, January, 1952) with its emphasis on the planned manipulation of the individual into the group role. Or, even more striking,the extraordinary efforts of some corporations to encompass the executive’s wife in the organization–often with the willing acquiescence of the wife in the merger (FORTUNE, October, 1951). And these, as we hope to demonstrate, are no isolated phenomena; recent public-opinion polls, slick-magazine fiction, current best-sellers, all document the same trend. Groupthink is becoming a national philosophy.