Harvard psychologist Irving Janis coined the term "group-think" in 1972. In his research, Janis examined the public records of various deliberative groups that were both successful and unsuccessful. He determined that the unsuccessful groups typically exhibited an array of features which he labeled "group think." This term quickly entered the public lexicon and today when we speak of "group-think" we envision any decision-making body comprised of members who are incapable of thinking for themselves.
Janis's observations suggested that "group-think" bodies could be recognized by a number of behaviors. First, the group itself often falsely considered itself invulnerable, that no one could touch it. Second, the members ignored or, at least discounted, any negative information that might impact the group. Third, and especially telling, the group failed to consider the consequences of their decisions, believing that their decisions were innately moral. A fourth characteristic of "group-think" groups was their tendency to hold stereotypical views of outside groups. A fifth feature was that intense pressure would be placed on any member who deviated from group norms. Sixth, a corollary of the fifth feature was that group members censored themselves to maintain group cohesiveness and conformity. A seventh feature was the group's illusion that they were unanimous in all of their views. A final eighth characteristic was the presence of what Janis called a "mindguard" or a member of the group whose job it was-either officially or unofficially-to protect the group against any outside influence or ideas.
If the features of group-think described above sound very much like a description of a cult, that would be a correct observationas far as it goes. However, Janis's studies were conducted mostly in governmental bodies. Whereas, most of us would readily expect cults to exhibit group-think; we would not expect such behavior from government agencies.
Why are these "group-think" behaviors so evil and dangerous? Consider the effect that each of the above eight "group-think" features would have on the outcome of a group's deliberation. First, if a group considers itself invulnerable, they have no need to be thorough or examine many options because they are sure that no one will object to their decision. Second, if a group discounts negative information about a potential solution they are considering and only considers positive information, they are behaving foolishly and will certainly not have all the information necessary to make the best decision. Third, groups that fail to consider the morality of issues can certainly not be acting in the public interest. Fourth, groups that view outside groups in a stereotypical fashion may unfairly and too quickly discredit any information that comes to them from such outside sources. Fifth, groups that punish members who deviate from group norms will not have members who are comfortable enough to make thoughtful, intelligent contributions to the group. Sixth, if members self-censor in order to maintain conformity and cohesiveness, they will certainly have pleasant groups which they will enjoy belonging to, but it will be unlikely that their group will accomplish anything of value. Seventh, the group may be unanimous and it may not even be an illusion, but unanimity is a poor substitute for achieving a quality solution. Eighth, ultimately, although mindguards may protect the group's cohesiveness, they will not help the group succeed.
Janis' theory of group-think has produced an extensive array of interesting research from various disciplinesmost of it case studies and primarily in the field of politics (The Bay of Pigs, The Challenger disaster, Watergate). However, there is nothing to prevent researchers from examining group-think that occurs in other small decision-making groupseducational, business, religious, or family, just to name a few.