Thursday, March 24, 2011

Akin Gump: Groupthink and the Independent-Minded, Creative Individual

According to the psychologist Raymond Cattell persons at a lower level of ego strength tend to place a premium on group adherence.  They tend to be group-oriented, affiliative, a joiner and follower dependent.  While persons at a high level of ego strength tend to be more self-reliant, resourceful, individualistic, and self-sufficient.

The independent-minded, creative person tends to be a non-joiner; such a person typically fears contamination by group members.  According to Heinz Hartmann, a "fear of contamination" can be a feature of ego strength.  The group-oriented individual may view a person at a higher level of ego strength as a threat to group cohesion.  Creative individuals, many of whom have a precarious sense of identity, may be wary of groups; they may fear that identification with group members will threaten their precarious sense of identity.  The independent-minded individual may feel threatened by the conventionalized, conformist mentality of many groups.

MacKinnon's research supports the premise that more creative individuals tend to be more independent-minded and possess a higher level of ego strength than the less creative.  Donald W. MacKinnon, "Personality and the Realization of Creative Potential." American Psychologist 20: 273-81, 1965.

MacKinnon gathered personality data on architects. The data clustered into three personality types: (I) the artist (creative), (II) neurotic (conflicted; artiste manque), and (III) the average (adapted). (Architects were chosen because they combine art with science, business, even psychology). His research found significant differences among the three groups.

Group I scored highest, in MacKinnon's analysis, on aggression, autonomy (independence), psychological complexity and richness, and ego strength (will); their goal was found to be "some inner artistic standard of excellence."

Group II scored intermediate on independence, close to (I) on richness, and highest on anxiety; their goal was "efficient execution."

Group III scored highest on abasement, affiliation, and deference (socialization); their goal was to meet the standard of the group.

The following characteristics of independent-minded, creative persons are adverse to  group membership, and the values of abasement, affiliation and deference:

* He is more observant and perceptive, and he puts a high value on independent "true-to-himself" perception. He perceives things the way other people do but also the way others do not.

* He is more independent in his judgments, and his self-directed behavior is determined by his own set of values and ethical standards.

* He balks at group standards, pressures to conform and external controls.  He asserts his independence without being hostile or aggressive, and he speaks his mind without being domineering.  If need be, he is flexible enough to simulate the prevailing norms of cultural and organizational behavior.

* He dislikes policing himself and others; he does not like to be bossed around.  He can readily entertain impulses and ideas that are commonly considered taboo; he has a spirit of adventure.

* He is highly individualistic and non-conventional in a constructive manner. Psychologist Donald W. MacKinnon puts it this way: "Although independent in thought and action, the creative person does not make a show of his independence; he does not do the off-beat thing narcissistically, that is, to call attention to himself. ... He is not a deliberate nonconformist but a genuinely independent and autonomous person."

* He is less anxious and possesses greater stability.

* His complex personality is, simultaneously, more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, crazier and saner.  He has a greater appreciation and acceptance of the nonrational elements in himself and others.

* He is willing to entertain and express personal impulses, and pays more attention to his "inner voices." He likes to see himself as being different from others, and he has greater self-acceptance.

* He searches for philosophical meanings and theoretical constructs and tends to prefer working with ideas, in contradistinction to the less creative who prefer to deal with the practical and concrete.

* He has a greater need for variety and is almost insatiable for intellectual ordering and comprehension.  Intellectual independence is antithetical to the conventionalized morality of highly-cohesive groups.

* He regards authority as arbitrary, contingent on continued and demonstrable superiority. When evaluating communications, he separates source from content, judges and reaches conclusions based on the information itself, rather than whether the information source was an "authority" or an "expert."  Authority in groups is often embodied in group leaders or the peer pressure of group members.  The independent-minded individual will resist accepting authority based solely on the status of group leaders or the majoritarian thinking of group members.

The independent-minded person at a high level of ego strength will be able to maintain autonomy even under "extreme pressure" to conform to groupthink.  See Kramer, P.D., Should You Leave?  A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice at 154 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997).

Kernberg has made the following observations about the difficulties faced by independent-minded, creative persons in some groups.  Kernberg, O. Ideology, Conflict and Leadership in Groups and Organizations at 5, 84-85 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

-- Psychological autonomy, the ability to retain his individuality even under extreme pressure, places the independent-minded individual at risk of aggression in groups that have regressed to a state of pre-autonomous superego functioning, i.e., groups in which a regressed, conformist ideology prevails.

-- An individual's creative potential places him at risk of envy and attack by narcissistically-disturbed supervisors in the workplace. Narcissistic supervisors will attempt to block or sabotage the promotion of honest and talented staff, who threaten them.

-- The affect underlying the group aggression that the creative person may experience is envy--envy of his thinking, his individuality, and his rationality.

The peer relations of independent-minded persons who are considered "outsiders" tend to become crudely sexualized and debased in regressed groups. The affect underlying the sexualization and debasement is jealousy. See Sullivan, H.S. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry at 348-48 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1953) (discussing situations in which an innocent victim of jealousy serves as an absolutely fantasied figure for a group of persons).


The conventionalized thinking that may come to prevail in groups has been termed "groupthink."

Groupthink is a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas.  It is a second potential negative consequence of group cohesion.

Irving Janis studied a number of 'disasters' in American foreign policy, such as failure to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (1941); the Bay of Pigs fiasco (1961) when the US administration sought to overthrow Fidel Castro; and the prosecution of the Vietnam War (1964–67) by President Lyndon Johnson.  He concluded that in each of these cases, the decisions were made largely due to the cohesive nature of the committees which made them. Moreover, that cohesiveness prevented contradictory views from being expressed and subsequently evaluated. As defined by Janis, “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”.

Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group.  During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, in hindsight. Additionally, it is difficult to assess the quality of decision making in terms of outcomes all the time, but one can almost always evaluate the quality of the decision-making process.

William H. Whyte coined the term in 1952, in Fortune Magazine:

Groupthink being a coinage — and, admittedly, a loaded one — a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity — it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.

Irving Janis, who did extensive work on the subject, defined it as:

A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.

Causes of groupthink

Highly cohesive groups are much more likely to engage in groupthink, because their cohesiveness often correlates with unspoken understanding and the ability to work together with minimal explanations (e.g., techspeak or telegraphic speech). Vandana Shiva refers to a lack of diversity in worldview as a "monoculture of the mind" while James Surowiecki warns against loss of the "cognitive diversity" that comes from having team members whose educational and occupational backgrounds differ. The closer group members are in outlook, the less likely they are to raise questions that might break their cohesion.

Although Janis sees group cohesion as the most important antecedent to groupthink, he states that it will not invariably lead to groupthink: 'It is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition'. According to Janis, group cohesion will only lead to groupthink if one of the following two antecedent conditions is present:

-- Structural faults in the organization: insulation of the group, lack of tradition of impartial leadership, lack of norms requiring methodological procedures, homogeneity of members' social background and ideology.

-- Provocative situational context: high stress from external threats, recent failures, excessive difficulties on the decision-making task, moral dilemmas.

Social psychologist Clark McCauley's three conditions under which groupthink occurs:

-- Directive leadership.

-- Homogeneity of members' social background and ideology.

-- Isolation of the group from outside sources of information and analysis.

Symptoms of groupthink

To make groupthink testable, Irving Janis devised eight symptoms indicative of groupthink:

-- Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.

-- Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group's assumptions.

-- Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

-- Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, stupid, or impotent (Note that the feminization of Jews--the view of Jews as impotent castrates--can be a feature of anti-Semitism). (Compare the phenomenon of workplace mobbing.)

-- Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of "disloyalty".

-- Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.

-- Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.

-- Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

Groupthink, resulting from the symptoms listed above, results in defective decision-making. That is, consensus-driven decisions are the result of the following practices of groupthinking:

-- Incomplete survey of alternatives

-- Incomplete survey of objectives

-- Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

-- Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives

-- Poor information search

-- Selection bias in collecting information

-- Failure to work out contingency plans.

Janis argued that groupthink was responsible for the Bay of Pigs 'fiasco' and other major examples of faulty decision-making. The UK bank Northern Rock, before its nationalization, is thought to be a recent major example of groupthink.  In such real-world examples, a number of the above groupthink symptoms were displayed.

Groupthink and de-individuation

Cults are also studied by sociologists in regard to groupthink and its deindividuation effects. The textbook definition describes deindividuation as the loss of self-awareness and evaluation apprehension, which occurs in group situations that foster anonymity and draw attention away from the individual.

Preventing groupthink

According to Irving Janis, decision making groups are not necessarily destined to groupthink. He devised seven ways of preventing groupthink:

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

-- Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.

-- The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.

-- All effective alternatives should be examined.

-- Each member should discuss the group's ideas with trusted people outside of the group.

-- The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.

-- At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil's advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

By following these guidelines, groupthink can be avoided. After the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco, President John F. Kennedy sought to avoid groupthink during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  During meetings, he invited outside experts to share their viewpoints, and allowed group members to question them carefully. He also encouraged group members to discuss possible solutions with trusted members within their separate departments, and he even divided the group up into various sub-groups, to partially break the group cohesion. Kennedy was deliberately absent from the meetings, so as to avoid pressing his own opinion.

Recent developments and critiques

In 2001, Ahlfinger and Esser described the difficulties of testing Janis' antecedants, specifically those related to government groups, stating in abstract:

Two hypotheses derived from groupthink theory were tested in a laboratory study which included measures of the full range of symptoms of groupthink, symptoms of a poor decision process, and decision quality. The hypothesis that groups whose leaders promoted their own preferred solutions would be more likely to fall victim to groupthink than groups with nonpromotional leaders received partial support. Groups with promotional leaders produced more symptoms of groupthink, discussed fewer facts, and reached a decision more quickly than groups with nonpromotional leaders. The hypothesis that groups composed of members who were predisposed to conform would be more likely to fall victim to groupthink than groups whose members were not predisposed to conform received no support. It is suggested that groupthink research is hampered by measurement problems.

After ending their study, they stated that better methods of testing Janis' symptoms were needed.

In a broad 2005 survey of post-Janis research Robert S. Baron contends that the connection between certain antecedents Janis believed necessary have not been demonstrated, and that groupthink is more ubiquitous and its symptoms are "far more widespread" than Janis envisioned. Baron' premise is "that Janis’s probing and insightful analysis of historical decision-making was correct about the symptoms of groupthink and their relationship to such outcomes as the suppression of dissent, polarization of attitude and poor decision quality and yet wrong about the antecedent conditions he specified...not only are these conditions not necessary to provoke the symptoms of groupthink, but that they often will not even amplify such symptoms given the high likelihood that such symptoms will develop in the complete absence of intense cohesion, crisis, group insulation, etc." As an alternative to Janis' model, Baron presents a "strong ubiquity" model for Groupthink:

" . . . the ubiquity model represents more a revision of Janis’s model than a repudiation. The social identification variable modifies Janis’s emphasis on intense-high status group cohesion as an antecedent condition for groupthink. Similarly, low self efficacy amplifies Janis’s prior consideration of this factor. The one major shift is that the ubiquity model assumes that when combined, social identification, salient norms and low self efficacy are both necessary and sufficient to evoke “groupthink reactions.” Such reactions include Janis’s array of defective decision processes as well as suppressed dissent, selective focus on shared viewpoints, polarization of attitude and action and heightened confidence in such polarized views. Note that such elevated confidence will often evoke the feelings of in-group moral superiority and invulnerability alluded to by Janis."

Baron says in conclusion that the pervasiveness of “groupthink phenomena” has been underestimated by prior theoretical accounts.


Gary Freedman said...

One wonders whether Akin Gump's decision to terminate my employment in October 1991 reflected the operation of Groupthink at the firm.

In retrospect the decision seems irrational. Perhaps, the individuals who made the decision were operating under the pressures of conformist group thinking which made that thinking seem rational to group members at the time.

Gary Freedman said...

Sociologist Kenneth Westhues devised the following list of mobbing indicators, with indicator number 12 probably being the most important. Workplace mobbers are dominated by groupthink:

1. By standard criteria of job performance, the target is at least average, probably above average.

2. Rumours and gossip circulate about the target's misdeeds: "Did you hear what she did last week?"

3. The target is not invited to meetings or voted onto committees, is excluded or excludes self.

4. Collective focus on a critical incident that "shows what kind of man he really is".

5. Shared conviction that the target needs some kind of formal punishment, "to be taught a lesson".

6. Unusual timing of the decision to punish, e.g., apart from the annual performance review.

7. Emotion-laden, defamatory rhetoric about the target in oral and written communications.

8. Formal expressions of collective negative sentiment toward the target, e.g., a vote of censure, signatures on a petition, meeting to discuss what to do about the target.

9. High value on secrecy, confidentiality, and collegial solidarity among the mobbers.

10. Loss of diversity of argument, so that it becomes dangerous to "speak up for" or defend the target.

11. The adding up of the target's real or imagined venial sins to make a mortal sin that cries for action.

12. The target is seen as personally abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities; stigmatizing, exclusionary labels are applied.

13. Disregard of established procedures, as mobbers take matters into their own hands.

14. Resistance to independent, outside review of sanctions imposed on the target.

15. Outraged response to any appeals for outside help the target may make.

16. Mobbers' fear of violence from target, target’s fear of violence from mobbers, or both.

Gary Freedman said...

In the book MOBBING: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, the authors identify mobbing as a particular type of bullying that is not as apparent as most, defining it as " emotional assault. It begins when an individual becomes the target of disrespectful and harmful behavior. Through innuendo, rumors, and public discrediting, a hostile environment is created in which one individual gathers others to willingly, or unwillingly, participate in continuous malevolent actions to force a person out of the workplace."

The authors say that mobbing is typically found in work environments that have poorly organised production and/or working methods and incapable or inattentive management and that mobbing victims are usually "exceptional individuals who demonstrated intelligence, competence, creativity, integrity, accomplishment and dedication".

According to the authors of Workplace Mobbing: Expulsion, Exclusion, and Transformation, workplace "mobbing" is not generally a familiar term—-it is not well-understood in some English speaking countries. Some researchers claim that mobbing is simply another name for bullying. Workplace mobbing can be considered as a "virus" or a "cancer" that spreads throughout the workplace via gossip, rumour and unfounded accusations. It is a deliberate attempt to force a person out of their workplace by humiliation, general harassment, emotional abuse and/or terror. Mobbing can be described as being "ganged up on". Mobbing is executed by a leader (who can be a manager, a co-worker, or a subordinate). The leader then rallies others into a systematic and frequent "mob-like" behaviour toward the victim.