Symptoms of Groupthink

What are the signs that group loyalty has caused members to slip into a groupthink mentality? Janis listed eight symptoms that show that concurrence seeking has led the group astray. The first two stem from overconfidence in the group’s prowess. The next pair reflect the tunnel vision members use to view the problem. The final four are signs of strong conformity pressure within the group. I’ll illustrate many of the symptoms with quotes from the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.10

1. Illusion of Invulnerability.  Despite the launchpad fire that killed three astronauts in 1967 and the close call of Apollo 13, the American space program had never experienced an in-flight fatality. When engineers raised the possibility of catastrophic O-ring blow-by, NASA manager George Hardy nonchalantly pointed out that this risk was ‘‘true of every other flight we have had." Janis summarizes this attitude as ‘‘everything is going to work out all right because we are a special group."11

2. Belief in Inherent Morality of the Group.  Under the sway of groupthink, members automatically assume the rightness of their cause. At the hearing, engineer Brian Russell noted that NASA managers had shifted the moral rules under which they operated: ‘‘I had the distinct feeling that we were in the position of having to prove that it was unsafe instead of the other way around."

3. Collective Rationalization.  Despite the written policy that the O-ring seal was a critical failure point without backup, NASA manager George Hardy testified that ‘‘we were counting on the secondary O-ring to be the sealing O-ring under the worst case conditions." Apparently this was a shared misconception. NASA manager Lawrence Mulloy confirmed that ‘‘no one in the meeting questioned the fact that the secondary seal was capable and in position to seal during the early part of the ignition transient." This collective rationalization supported a mindset of ‘‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil."12

4. Out-group Stereotypes.  Although there is no direct evidence that NASA officials looked down on Thiokol engineers, Mulloy was caustic about their recommendation to postpone the launch until the temperature rose to 53 degrees. He reportedly asked whether they expected NASA to wait until April to launch the shuttle.

5. Self-Censorship.  We now know that Thiokol engineer George McDonald wanted to postpone the flight. But instead of clearly stating ‘‘I recommend we don’t launch below 53 degrees," he offered an equivocal opinion. He suggested that ‘‘lower temperatures are in the direction of badness for both O-rings. . . ." What did he think they should do? From his tempered words, it’s hard to tell.

6. Illusion of Unanimity.  NASA managers perpetuated the fiction that everyone was fully in accord on the launch recommendation. They admitted to the presidential commission that they didn’t report Thiokol’s on-again/off-again hesitancy with their superiors. As often happens in such cases, the flight readiness review team interpreted silence as agreement.

7. Direct Pressure on Dissenters.  Thiokol engineers felt pressure from two directions to reverse their ‘‘no-go" recommendation. NASA managers had already postponed the launch three times and were fearful the American public would regard the agency as inept. Undoubtedly that strain triggered Hardy’s retort that he was ‘‘appalled" at Thiokol’s recommendation. Similarly, the company’s management was fearful of losing future NASA contracts. When they went off-line for their caucus, Thiokol’s senior vice president urged Roger Lund, vice president of engineering, to ‘‘take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat."

8. Self-Appointed Mindguards.  ‘‘Mindguards" protect a leader from assault by troublesome ideas. NASA managers insulated Jesse Moore from the debate over the integrity of the rocket booster seals. Even though Roger Boisjoly was Thiokol’s expert on O-rings, he later bemoaned that he ‘‘was not even asked to participate in giving input to the final decision charts."