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The Dangers of “GroupThink”

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The Dangers of “GroupThink”

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By William Morgan, DC

The term “group think” was coined by the psychologist Irving Janis in his 1972 work, Victims of Group think: A Psychological Study of Foreign- Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Group think describes what happens when individual thought cedes to the will of group consciousness. This may sound like a cross between an Orwellian novel and a bad zombie movie, but its prevalence in the world is common, and the dangers of group think are all too real, especially when it comes to decision-making in health care. Group think suppresses dissenting views and can lead to an over simplified view of problems and solutions.

Symptoms of Groupthink

Dr. Janis presented eight symptoms of group think:

  • Group attitude of invulnerability. The group feels that it is “bulletproof,” so it takes unnecessary risks and is overly confident.
  • Group rationalism—discrediting evidence that is contrary to the group beliefs.
  • Group peer pressure inhibits the will to dissent. Members of the group are browbeaten into conformity of thought.
  • Group belief of moral superiority.
  • Stereotyping of outsiders in negative terms—such as “Oh, he is just a dumb straight.” Or, “Those medi-practors are so insecure in their ability to adjust.”
  • Group self-censorship. Peer pressure and stereotyping create a spirit of self-censorship. The team members censor their own words and thoughts.
  • Group complacency is fed by the group’s culture of self censorship and peer pressure.
  • The appearance of unanimous decisions. Since no one voices a dissenting opinion (because of peer pressure, self-censorship and stereotyping of dissenters), the group feels that it always has a unanimous consensus.

Several failures have resulted from group think: the Maginot Line, the Y2K millennium bug hoax, global warming (both sides of the argument) and the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

In health care, we see group think dangers when treatment risks are considered acceptable by certain specialty groups. Physicians in a group may discuss the nuances of a surgical procedure, but they do not question the need for surgery. Another medical specialty may dispense pain medication while rationalizing the risk-to-benefit ratio. Equally disconcerting are health care administrators and decision-makers who issue decrees for the rest of society while cloistered away in a boardroom far from the treatment room.

Protect Yourself

Of course, it would be hypocritical for us not to reflect on our own profession. Certainly, when chiropractors get together, we can be as guilty as anyone else when it comes to group think. How can we protect ourselves? Whenever we meet in groups, boards or committees, we need to identify the risk of group think and take active steps to prevent its insidiousness from creeping into our midst.

Group leaders should seek input from those with dissenting views.The organization should encourage open discussion and feedback. Having someone play devil’s advocate would also be a way to infuse open thought into our organization.Seeking input from outside the group provides a healthy look at outside opinions. For example, at the hospital, I frequently call upon other physicians for their opinions in complicated cases.Finally, group leaders should avoid stating their opinions so strongly that the entire organization is coerced into marching in lock step with them.

Though Dr. Janis coined “group think” in recent decades, the tendency has been recognized for centuries. Hans Christian Andersen illustrated it eloquently in his story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, when a little boy broke the trance of national group think by blurting out that the emperor had no clothes. We need to echo the little boy’s sentiment in defending our profession from the ill effects of group think.

Dr. Morgan splits his clinical time between a hospital-based chiropractic clinic and two Washington, D.C., executive health clinics. He is adjunct faculty for F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and New York College of Chiropractic. He can be reached through his Web site,

About the Author:

I was introduced to Chiro.Org in early 1996, where my friend Joe Garolis helped me learn HTML, the "mark-up language" for websites. We have been fortunate that journals like JMPT have given us permission to reproduce some early important articles in Full-Text format. Maintaining the Org website has been, and remains, my favorite hobby.


  1. Mark Szlazak, DC June 13, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    Group think happens in many places including among scientists and in science. But some of the most egregious forms are from so-called “skeptical” groups or debunk-er organizations. These extreme forms are nothing more than a type of cult.

    Group think is part of the human condition, we should be mindful of it and we will at some point be guilty of it to some degree. That’s almost guaranteed.

  2. Maine Chiropractor June 14, 2011 at 7:32 am

    Group-think feels safe doesn’t it? Whether it’s science or religion, it is the rare individual who can leave the comforts of the herd behind and objectively examine a situation or set of facts and accept the answer as it is.

  3. Mark Szlazak, DC June 14, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I should have added this as well. One thing these articles should talk about is the benefits of group think. At times situations are uncertain for quite a while and keeping people believing is needed to really allow issues to be cleared up. The problem is occurs when the resolution is obviously negative to impartial observers but isn’t given up by “believers.”

    Isn’t life grand.

  4. Maine Chiropractor June 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I just coincidentally read an article on “intellectual inertia” today as well. I think it may be group-think’s first cousin!

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