Groupthink is a phenomenon that may occur when people assume the beliefs or opinions of a group. They do this to get a sense of belonging or because they’re not thinking critically on their own.
The term “groupthink” generally brings to mind extreme examples. For instance, in the novel “Lord of the Flies,” boys stranded on a desert island break into two groups that try to kill each other in a quest for dominance.
Believe it or not, similar examples exist in real life. Think of the online challenges that are popular these days.
Though less extreme than the fictional example above, they do involve participants engaging in dangerous things, such as putting their forearm on a hot stove or eating a detergent pod.
While groupthink can affect major events like military actions and political decisions, it happens most often in everyday situations, such as in online forums or at work.
In these cases, people who have differing opinions can feel afraid to speak out, and they may face hostility from those in the group who hold the majority opinion.
Not every agreement is a result of groupthink. That being said, certain signs might indicate that groupthink is happening.
If members of a group demean someone for having a different opinion, others in the group may feel afraid to express opinions that differ from the group’s.
In online groups, groupthink might cause the “banishment” of any member who disagrees with a moderator or anyone else who seems to hold power. This banishment can continue through personal messages to the member or by ongoing criticism of that member to others in the group.
Groupthink can also happen at school and at work.
If a shy or quiet child begins to be teased repeatedly by many classmates, those classmates could be influenced by groupthink.
Even teachers can engage in groupthink in the classroom by shutting down students who have views that differ from their own.
While at school, groupthink can be motivated by a desire to fit in. In a work setting, the motivation can result from wanting to keep a job or earn a promotion or other benefit.
A supervisor might encourage groupthink by not acknowledging or respecting the viewpoints of workers. The workers then feel they must blindly follow the supervisor or risk getting fired.
Co-workers can also exhibit groupthink when more dominant workers are given center stage and quieter ones fear disagreeing with them. This is especially true when a dominant worker has previously lashed out against someone who speaks up.
It’s not always easy to stop groupthink, but you can take actions to try to harness it.
How to stop groupthink
- Encourage the expression of differing opinions.
- Ask people their opinion before sharing yours, and genuinely listen.
- If something goes wrong in a group situation, avoid blaming one person. Instead, focus on team success and failure as a whole.
- Value each person’s input without verbally giving them titles like “the smart one” or “the silly one.”
- Ask someone to play devil’s advocate to ensure that the group thinks critically.
- If you notice that someone seems afraid to share an opinion, ask them directly to share and then thank them for doing so.
If you’re the target of groupthink or don’t have the means to stop it, you may want to leave the group if possible.
Whether you witness groupthink or experience it yourself, there are ways you can help prevent it from occurring.
- Make yourself and others aware of what groupthink is and how it can affect everyone.
- Create and engage in groups that support differing opinions.
- Instead of criticizing someone who thinks differently, try to see the situation from their point of view.
- Read information from reliable sources, and talk with experts.
- If something doesn’t feel right to you, ask yourself if you’re feeling pressured or if you need more information.
Part of the reason groupthink is so common is that it can be an important tool for survival. In general, groupthink won’t keep us alive, but it can help form communities and cultures where people look out for each other.
If you notice a child mimicking a teen, copying whatever they do, this urge comes from the same source as groupthink. People look to others for validation and guidance.
Similarly, “going with the flow” produces few waves and can help you feel secure.
Quite a few risks are associated with groupthink. Some are minor, while others carry severe consequences.
Risks of groupthink
- succumbing to peer pressure
- losing your individual voice
- having a false sense of security
- being dominated by someone else
- participating in a dangerous activity
- alienating people you care about if they don’t share your beliefs
- acting without thinking critically
- being part of a decision that causes unnecessary harm to yourself or others
Groupthink happens when a person in power — or a group of people together — makes others feel that their opinions don’t count. As a result, everyone in the group shares the dominant belief without examining it critically.
Groupthink can happen in just about any situation, including at work, at school, and with friends.
Try to place yourself in situations where you can speak freely and with people who value differing opinions. If you notice groupthink occurring, you can try to change the dynamic to better serve everyone.