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Groupthinking into bad political decisions

Leaders and other responsible figures have made numerous political decisions throughout history that turned out to be bad. There are various factors that could have contributed to making these decisions and their poor consequences, and one of them recognized in the early seventies is groupthink.

The term groupthink was coined by a psychologist Irving Janis, who published a book on the matter in 1972, in which he analysed decisions of the US government that had unfavourable or favourable outcomes, such as Bay of Pigs fiasco or Cuban missile crisis, respectively. Since then, the scholars have described different political decisions preceded by the groupthink conclusions and decisions to act.

Groupthink occurs when a group of people desires more to reach unanimity than to engage in rational and logical decision-making. The main drive for this process is extreme cohesiveness, but there are other factors presented in the graph below. Poor decision-making involves biased discussion, failure to seek expert advice, minimizing conflict, avoiding alternatives, suppressing personal doubts, which all lead to a distorted view of reality, neglect of ethical issues and excessive optimism with the outcome of policy fiascoes.

Adapted from Janis & Mann, 1977

Although the theory of groupthink emerged primarily with the aim to explain political decision-making, latter studies suggested that there are other contexts in which groups engage in this mode of thinking and the theory found its application in management, especially in big corporations, and in some other areas of internal governance, e.g. the launch of the Challenger. However, it continued to be used in analysing different foreign policy decisions, for instance Iraq and the War on Terror or terrorist radicalization.

As every theory, this one was also subject to criticism. Scholars have pointed out different conditions that influence groupthink, that were not provided by Janis, such as political structure, social identification and low self-efficacy, manipulation of the decision-making process. Groupthink is certainly not the only process that leads to making bad political decisions. However, when one is in a position to be involved in a group that is to make important internal or external policy decisions, they should bear in mind that this process can occur and lead to adverse consequences. The role of the group processes should never be underestimated. Even more so in foreign policy decision making.

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