Any established system of people — especially churches — run a dangerous risk of becoming their own closed system of reality.  All that enters into their thinking is what happens within their realm of considerations.  Small towns can suffer from this psychological phenomena, developing their own sub-culture values of who is in and who is out.  Egos will continually vie for popularity.

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud diagnosed such human behavior, labeling it “herd mentality” (see Freud’s “Group Psychology”).  For Jung this motivated the central thrust of his work on Individualization (see “The Undiscovered Self).  Jung and Freud both expected a woefully small percentage of people able to rise above community expectations and inhibitions to become our one’s own person.

Fads and fashions drive us to an eerie, primitive sense of conformity.  One must be up on the latest music, dance, clothing, electronic gadgetry, etc. and etc., or risk social shunning.  The compulsion even drives how we think and what we believe.  Political Correctness replaces the authority once reserved for the Bible itself.

These shared beliefs shape much of our culture.  We need some degree of agreement to function as a society, but when the beliefs become too set in their ways, Groupthink is ready to cripple the potential of any formed group.  Only the truly brave or cynical eccentric dare to overstep such a rigid, closed system.  The boundaries are too menacing for the average citizen.  Some social psychologists refer to rigid social norms as Paradigm Paralysis.  We walk through the accepted and coerced routines not for their sensibility, but for fear of others thinking we are not good enough.  It’s all the accidental result of successful pressure to conform.

Outsiders face a daunting challenge of acceptance within an already established system.  When they dare to speak up, the group may feel keenly intimidated by different ideas, despite their fresh potential to revive their staid ways.  Sometimes the group responds with mocking and/or hostility.  It was the closed religious system of the first century that finally nailed the “outsider” Jesus to the cross.  They simply could not tolerate his threats to their tidy interpretation of reality.  Ask any prophet and they will all confirm the same point.  “Killing the messenger” always exposes the dire contamination of collective Groupthink.

It’s reminiscent of George Well’s novel, “1984.”  His concept of Doublethink poses some insight into the prevailing wisdom of people stuck in a stagnant system,

“The labyrinthine world of doublethink . . . to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”


Irving Janis has defined this toxic system as Groupthink (one word) and his contribution is monumental.  In 1972, he published a book, “Groupthink; Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes” (with the second edition released in 1982), diagnosing and illustrating the fiascoes of escalating the Korean and Vietnam Wars, The Bay of Pigs (Kennedy was no angel!), defective O-rings leading to the Challenger space shuttle disaster, Pearl Harbor complacency leading to World War II, and other case studies.  He ably shows how the Groupthink process can devastate some of the noblest and best resourced plans.

If great institutions can suffer the ill effects of Groupthink, why should the local church be exempt from its lure?  Various boards and committees become too comfortable with their annual events and fund drives.  They can submit to a locked routine with such fervor rivaling the mandates of Moses.  Pity the poor “outsider” pastor trying to navigate their way through the traditions (AKA, “Nostalgia”) and expected to bend to the “way it’s always been done” regardless of whether it still sense anymore and seems totally obsolete.

“The more a society drifts from truth,

The more it will hate those that speak it.”

                            ..                                                   — George Orwell

The essentials of Janis’s social syndrome are summarized as follows,


“A mode of thinking 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 refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”

Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink, page 9.

(Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972)


Causes of Groupthink

  • Highly cohesive groups are much more likely to engage in groupthink. The closer they are, the less likely they are to raise questions to break the cohesion.
  • The group isolates itself from outside experts. In order to make a well informed decision, the group needs to invite qualified experts to help weigh the possible      risks.
  • Strong leadership leads to groupthink, because the leader is more likely to promote their own solution.


Groupthink — Symptoms

Irving Janis devised eight symptoms that are indicative of groupthink (1977):

Type I: Overestimations of the Group – its Power and Morality

1) Illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all the members – Creating excessive feeling of optimism that encourages taking extreme risks, limiting few alternative courses of action (often only two), without a broad range of alternatives.

2) Belief in inherent morality – Members unquestioningly believes in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignores the ethical or moral consequences of their actions and decisions, neglecting the need to reexamine and evaluate their standpoint.


Type II: Closed-Mindedness

3) Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings or other information to guard against challenges that may cause them to reconsider their assumptions, ignoring the objectives and consequences of their choices.

4) Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of the “enemy” predispose the need for making effective responses to conflict, especially since the enemy leaders are “too evil” to warrant genuine negotiation attempts.


Type III: Pressures toward Uniformity

5) Self-censorship – Prohibiting doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus, reacting in a selective bias to factual information and relevant judgments differing from their beliefs.

6) Illusion of unanimity – The group goes along with the perceived majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous, sabotaging any contingency plans.      Accepting a false assumption that “silence means consent,” resulting from a self-censorship of deviations.

7) Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views, even to conform against their will, making clear that this type of dissent is contrary to what is expected of all loyal members.

8) Self-appointed ‘Mind-guards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from dissenting opinions that are problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.  They protect the complacency.



1) Incomplete survey of alternatives

2) Incomplete survey of objectives

3) Failure to examine risks of rejected alternatives

4) Failure to reappraise initially rejected alternatives

5) Poor information search

6) Selective bias in processing information at hand

7) Failure to work out contingency plans

Resolving Groupthink

According to Irving Janis, decision making groups are not necessarily doomed to groupthink. He also claims that there are several ways to prevent it. Janis devised seven ways of preventing groupthink (209-15):

1) Leaders should assign the role of “critical evaluator” to each member. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.

2) Leaders should delay and even avoid expressing their preferences, expectations and opinion when assigning a task to a group.

3) The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem, who can report back their outside and objective reactions.

4) All effective alternatives should be examined, especially by outside sources familiar with the subject who can challenge the decisions and conclusions.

5) Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group, who can question assumptions and plans

6) The group should invite outside experts into meetings, who can bring fresh and objective perspectives. Group members should be encouraged to discuss and process alternative scenarios and refine their own viewpoints.

7) At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate, alternating the role and responsibility for each meeting.


 Nothing is so firmly believed

as what we least know.

Michel Eyquem, seigneur de Montaigne (1533–1592)

Of Divine Ordinances, Book 1, chap 31





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *