Irving L. Janis’s ‘Groupthink’, Anti-Critical Thinking, And Black Media Trust

There are a number of factors, social elements, and internal dynamics of character that I could label as anti-critical thinking. In a post I wrote half a decade ago, I listed several reasons why Erykah Badu’s use of “groupthink” was a form of anti-critical thinking. In that piece, I quoted an author, psychologist, and person responsible for coining that term, “groupthink”. In his book, “Victims Of Groupthink”, Irving Janis lays out a set of definitions, a study of high-level policy makers in group decision making situations, and an overall framework to discuss groupthink as a factor of group dynamics.


Janis selects four US foreign policy fiascoes to illustrate his hypothesis and framework for defining groupthink as an explanation for such displays of anti-critical thinking.

I use the term “groupthink” as a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. “Groupthink” is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary of George Orwell presents in his dismaying 1984–a vocabulary with terms such as “doublethink” and “crimethink”. By putting groupthink with those Orwellian words, I realize that groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. The invidiousness is intentional: Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.

“Victims Of Groupthink”, Irving L. Janis, pg. 9


Janis continues his discussion by listing what he refers to as six major defects of decision making:


At least six major defects in decision-making contribute to failures to solve problems adequately. First, the group’s discussions are limited to a few alternative courses of action (often only two) without a survey of the full range of alternatives. Second, the group fails to reexamine the course of action initially preferred by the majority of members from the standpoint of nonobvious risks and drawbacks that had not been considered when it was originally evaluated. Third, the members neglect courses of action initially evaluated as unsatisfactory by the majority of the group: they spend little or no time discussing whether they have overlooked nonobvious gains or whether there are ways of reducing the seemingly prohibitive costs that had made the alternatives seem undesirable. Fourth, members make little or no attempt to obtain information from experts who can supply sound estimates of losses and gains to be expected from alternative courses of actions. Fifth, selective bias is shown in the way the group reacts to factual information and relevant judgments from experts, the mass media, and outside critics. The members show interest in facts and opinions that support their initially preferred policy and take up time in their meetings to discuss them, but they tend to ignore facts and opinions that do not support their initially preferred policy. Sixth, the members spend little time deliberating about how the chosen policy might be hindered by bureaucratic inertia, sabotaged by political opponents, or temporarily derailed by the common accidents that happen to the best of well-laid plans. Consequently, they fail to work out contingency plans to cope with foreseeable setbacks that could endanger the overall success of the chosen course of action.

pg 10


A key point in his discussion is highlighted when he describes his initial findings. In this hypothesis, he points to a dynamic where loyalty to a group overshadowing critical thinking and objectivity in decisions made by that group lead to detrimental decision making by that group.


In his own words:


…a dominant characteristic appears to be remaining loyal to the group by sticking with the decisions to which the group has committed itself, even when the policy is working badly and has unintended consequences that disturb the conscience of the members. In a sense, members consider loyalty to the group the highest form of morality. That loyalty requires each member to avoid raising controversial issues, questioning weak arguments, or calling a halt to softheaded thinking.


Paradoxically, softheaded groups are likely to be extremely hardhearted toward out-groups and enemies. In dealing with a rival nation, policy-makers comprising an amiable group find it relatively easy to authorize dehumanizing solutions such as large-scale bombings. An affable group of government officials is unlikely to pursue the difficult and controversial issues that arise when alternatives to a harsh military solution come up for discussion. Nor are the members inclined to raise ethical issues that imply that this “fine group of ours, with its humanitarianism and its high-minded principles, might be capable of adopting a course of action that is inhumane and immoral.”
pg. 12


To his credit, Janis extends an enormous amount of energy in qualifying exactly what he wishes to point towards with his term, “groupthink”. That he attempts to establish this as early in his book fits within his overall tendency towards clarity. His work details readily that groupthink is not an attribute of individual error or structural error, that is, when it is a cause of error.


The concept of groupthink pinpoints an entirely different source of trouble, residing neither in the individual nor in the organization setting. Over and beyond all the familiar sources of human error is a powerful source of defective judgment that arises in cohesive groups — the concurrence-seeking tendency, which fosters overoptimism, lack of vigilance, and sloganistic thinking about the weakness and immorality of out-groups. This tendency can take its toll even when the decision-makers are conscientious statesmen trying to make the best possible decisions for their country and for all mankind.

pg 13


Janis leaves us with his most resolute definition for groupthink:


The more amiability and esprit de corps among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.


There is an attractiveness in using a term whose labeling is inspired by popular culture. However, there is a concomitant danger there as well. That being, a misuse based less on popular usage than lack of ever seeking to research context that gave impetus to its coinage. This is not OWL subscribing to practices of etymological fallicists. Moreso, it is OWL bringing awareness to a framework that addresses that sort of anti-critical thinking that US Black Media Trust is specifically designed to tackle. While Janis applies his work in a way that poignantly averts any attempt at misusage, it ultimately gets misused, mainly because of how it sits in popular culture. However, his use of four high-level state department fiascoes is to make sure misreadings regarding what sort of group of individuals this phrase should be applied to do not creep into this framework.


For my usage here, it must be noted again that groupthink does apply to in person, high-level group decision making, mainly as a means of qualification. Groupthink is not used to consider group influence on people without power where class is a major determinant, as Janis uses government officials in military decision making criteria and members of one of Earth’s power nations. What I do believe I will ponder based on Janis’s study for my own work, is how people in groups formed purely in mediated space behave in similar fashion to those described in his studies of groupthink.


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