What is groupthink and can it be avoided?
The quotidian and oft-repeated phrase "two heads are better than one" has been
challenged in its accuracy and application to foreign policy decision making. 'Groupthink', a
term coined by Irving Janis in 1972, offers an explanation of the phenomenon in which
decisions created under group constraints are conducive to errors, with such errors escalating
the possibility of an undesirable or even disastrous outcome.
In addition to an analysis into
the root causes and symptoms of this complex, social-psychological small group dynamic, I
contend that any prescriptions that aim to eliminate groupthink altogether are implausible and
expecting a government organization to implement such preventative measures is simply
In order to overcome the limitations of individuals' mental functioning, including limited
information-processing capacities, and subjective and incomplete knowledge, many
momentous foreign policy decisions are relegated to groups. Although Janis' primary focus
was on groups composed of U.S presidents and their advisors, groupthink has been
evaluated in more recent times for its occurrence in "cabinets, committees, commissions, and
cliques" (Hart, 1990). Policies produced within these groups' context, Janis argued, often
cannot be predicted by eminent decision-making models, such as Allison's bureaucratic
politics and organization process models or the rational actor paradigm. While these other
models assume that the internal workings of a group are merely the pre-determined outcome
of the larger political, international, or organizational system structure, groupthink suggests
instead that group-level interactions are the scene of complex, socio-psychological dynamics
(Stern et. al, 1997). More specifically, the members of a group stricken with groupthink "strive
so ardently for unanimity that it overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative
courses of action" (Janis 1972). This dynamic may have a profound influence on the decision-
making process and on the foreign policy outcome.
The likelihood of groupthink among a particular decision-making body is impacted by
four main antecedent conditions: the cohesiveness and stress-levels of the group, the lack of
impartiality of the group's leader, as well as the institutional context of the decision making
process. The degree of cohesiveness of a group is a major antecedent condition for
groupthink as an amiable environment with high espirit de corps often results in the
abandonment of independent critical thinking and dissenting perspectives. High stress-levels
further strengthens this group cohesion and perpetuate the "concurrence-seeking"
atmosphere (Stern et al., 1997). A group with an impartial leadership often becomes caught