THE GROUP PROCESS: GROUPTHINK AND MANAGING AGREEMENT
Assigned Reading: “Political Communication in Decision-Making Groups”, Michael W. Mansfield, in New Directions in Political Communication: A Resource Book, edited by David L. Swanson and Dan Nimmo, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., pp. 255-304.
Please Note: There will be two separate showings of the twenty-five minute Irving Janis Groupthink video on Sunday, February 13 in Draper 337. The first showing will begin promptly at 7:30 p.m. and the second showing will be at 9:15 p.m.
I. The Process
Whatever the sources of human passions, so long as the very reason for the existence of a society is to preserve human rights, liberties and freedoms, there is no way to abolish the fallibility underlying human actions without snuffing out human rights. If a community protects human rights it can neither force uniform views on them nor brainwash them into adopting them. This would be analogous, wrote Madison, to “the annihilation of air which is essential to animal life.” In a republic citizens are at liberty to exercise reason, fallible though it often is. And, since humans differ from one another in talents, possessions, wealth, desires, and needs, no wonder that people form and express diverse opinions. No wonder also that differing opinions conflict. And, when they do, no wonder that those of common opinion “are united and actuated” into forming factions adverse to one another and “the aggregate interests of the community,” i.e. conflicting interests.
This shifting to-and-fro as conflicting collective interests exchange minority and majority standing, or at least perceive they do, drawing every greater numbers into a quarrel, points to a key facet of life: group activity is a process. Group activity is not a material thing, though it is often about material goods. Instead group behavior is a process of manifold aspects and phases: primal bickering between fallible humans shouting “I don’t know much about it but I know I’m right!;” entertaining moments provoking spectators to urge “Let’s you and him fight!;” widening scope as politicians implore citizens to “Take sides y’all!;” interested bystanders who “Join the fight!;” calmer heads who ask “Can’t we talk?;” and mollifying leaders promising “I can get most of what you want at a cheaper price.” Group activity is continuous, wall-to-wall, collective activity.
Look up the word “process” in any standard dictionary: a series of actions, operations, or motions involved in the accomplishment of an end; or, a systematic series of steps in the production of a good; or progressive, forward proceedings moving from beginning to end. Several characteristics set the group process (and, in fact, almost any process) apart from the systematic, progressive, beginning-to-end processes defined in dictionaries. For one, in the group process there is no discernible beginning or end! Group activity is not like making sugar from sugarcane, systematically assembling automobiles, or constructing a “spec house.” Each group act, be it a decision to invade another country, to market a diet pill, to burglarize a party’s headquarters, or to send a manned rocket into space. Any group decision reached as an “end” is at best temporary, a beginning, or recycling of the group process. No one wins, no one loses. All sides reserve the right to press their demands at a later time. This encourages people to agree to disagree. That is a worthwhile; it is, after all, agreement. But it is no end. For agreeing to disagree cultivates the culture for renewing foregone demands, asserting new ones, and provoking new disputes.
To characterize group activity as a continuous process with no discernible beginning or end; as inclusive, conflict-ridden, and factional; unavoidable, continuous, and circular; unrepeatable, irreversible, and unpredictable, is to say that politics is all too human. And, as most that is human, group activity is difficult to understand. How best can we cultivate an understanding of this many faceted, complex, and all too human process of collective activity? As a minimum we must consider the principal ways philosophers use in representing how and why people act as they do, i.e., alleged representative anecdotes of human action.
II. Three General Interpretations Behavioral Scientists Give to Human Activity
SELF ACTION— “where things are viewed as acting under their own powers.”
One time-honored anecdote presents humans as motivated by traits that each individual brings to the table of group behavior. We related that anecdote in describing the impulses of passion that are unique in intensity and combination for each person. According to that anecdote, individual passions motivate people’s actions. For example, an individual who prizes personal security and sufficient wealth to make security possible, so the story goes, supports government policies that encourage entrepreneurs to exploit resources, talents, and economic arrangements that enhance personal wealth. If a second person wants security in her health and well-being, she may favor government subsidized medical care for all Americans. Yet a third individual is in conflict with himself: his passion for health goads him to support government’s subsidization of medical care, but his passion for wealth opposes tax increases to pay for that care. In a similar vein we attribute a citizen’s vote in an election to being a lifelong Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, etc.
In sum, whatever the passion or combination thereof, the self-action anecdote concludes people act as independent selves with passions unique to each, separate and apart from others. The self-action anecdote is attractive in its simplicity. When a passion, prejudice, or bias, for instance, “love” or “hate,” “genius” or “stupidity,” “honest” or “corrupt,” become the cause of acts, we can readily admire or disapprove without further thought. The passions that allegedly caused them appear as qualities of the acts themselves. And, if asked, “Why did you do it?,” the retort is quick in coming: “I’m me, that’s why!”
INTER-ACTION-- “where thing is balanced against thing in causal interconnection.”
Simple as it is the self-action anecdote is not representative, but partial. Here is why. Although individuals may act independently solely on their own volition, they seldom do, certainly not in isolated contemplation of their self-conscious passions. As The Federalist instructed, individuals share common impulses of passion with others, perhaps uniting with them to press a preferred cause, program, policy, or point of view. They remain independent of one another, yet are organized and operate on one another. This is an interaction anecdote. It also yields a partial rather than representative account of the society; namely, the civil community consists of independent persons, groups, factions, agencies, voluntary associations, and diverse organizations. These parties are in inter-course between, not with, one another. (The prefix “inter” designates “between,” i.e., independent objects rubbing against one another like parts of a machine.) Such intercourse may be cooperative, conflicting, or compatible. This is the group theory of politics. It argues, for instance, that members of the National Rifle Association act on one another to oppose restrictions on the right to bear arms, then pressure other groups, including the US Congress, to support their stand. Another example: the American Society of Newspaper Editors acts on members and other groups to oppose restrictions on freedom of press. Or, the American Association of Retired Persons warns Congress against “sweeping changes in Medicare.” In the interaction scenario the question, “Why did you do it?” elicits a “I’m doing as you demanded, that’s why!”
TRANS-ACTION-- “where what people think, feel, and do arises out of the meaning persons give to physical, social, and abstract things, meaning derived through the social transactions people have with their fellows.”
Yet, the society is not merely an aggregate of independent parts. Parts may be parts but not group parts, at least if we take seriously group behavior as a process. The group is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a viable culture of living organisms neither isolated from, nor independent of, one another and the collective group. Those organisms co-dependently and con-jointly are in transaction with, not on, the group. Citizens of the civil community are consubstantial with the community, i.e., of the same substance with the group. In mutual exchange they create, cultivate, nurture, and recreate the meanings of all matters. Persons in transaction include, in time and space, those well beyond the living at any given moment. Past, present, and future generations of citizens comprise the civil community. Their roles are continuously given meanings through the active subjective constructions and interpretations of those transacting. So also are the roles of persons outside the geographic boundaries of the community, for they too are affected by what the collective does. In the transaction anecdote “Why did you do it?,” elicits the response, “I’m as all of us are, that’s why!”
All three anecdotes attribute causes to human behavior: in self-action they are centered in the individual; in interaction in individuals’ selfless loyalty to one’s own group; in transaction in the collective meanings communities assign to things. Both self-action and interaction, if pushed too far, can be as pernicious for the community as salubrious. Self-action masks egoistic selfishness, and interaction a lockstep mechanical group loyalty that turns a blind eye to cruelties imposed on “deviants.” So pressed, self-action and interaction anecdotes justify extremes that make community or groups exclusive rather than inclusive. Extremes stamp out diversity. Properly cultivated, however, a representative anecdote of transaction depicts the underlying organic unity of the collective community.
Hadley Cantril, Princeton Psychologist, quotes the following story about three umpires swapping views as to their professional function:
The first umpire said, “Some’s balls and some’s strikes and I calls ‘em as they is.” The second umpire said, “Some’s balls and some’s strikes and I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” While the third umpire said, “Some’s balls and some’s strikes but they ain’t nothin’ till I calls ‘em.”
The first umpire’s perspective represents the self-action viewpoint, the second umpire that of the interaction perspective, while the third umpire illustrates the basic characteristic of the transactional view, which is summarized as follows: Each percept, from the simplest to the most complex, is the product of a creative act. The raw material for this creation is lost to us since in the very act of creating, we modify it. We can never encounter a stimulus before some meaning has been assigned to it by a perceiver.
III. Drama, Illusion, and Reality
The implication from the above discussion is clear, humans are not passive creatures. Things that reach them in everyday life—whether through direct, firsthand experience or indirectly by way of groups and mass media—have no inherent meaning. People pay heed to some things, ignore others; the messages that they heed, they interpret and act on. Some things impress people, others they forget, others they avoid. People are active mediators, or interpreters, of their worlds. They are in, and constitute a human process, a communication process that creates realities.
Human imagination is essential to that process. We employ our imaginations for every conceivable purpose. It surely helps us to frame a picture of the way the world is and all possible objects, which we deal with in our daily lives. But imagination does more. As philosopher David Hume wrote, “Imagination extends experience.” Lacking imagination, the pictures in our heads would be limited, but with imagination we can conceive of things that we have never experienced. Indeed, perhaps no one has ever experienced what can sometimes be imagined.
As active humans engaged in interpretation through human imagination, mythology distracts us everywhere—in government as in business, in politics as in economics, in foreign affairs as in domestic policy. The late President Kennedy put it this way, “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forbears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” A myth is:
A credible, dramatic, socially constructed re-presentation of perceived realities that people accept as permanent, fixed knowledge of reality while forgetting (if the were ever aware of it) its tentative, imaginative, created, and perhaps fictional qualities.
This is obviously the broadest kind of definition, but it does have certain advantages for our purposes. Myth is not confined to a fantastic tale of the immortals long ago; it can include current myths held about the world right now. Myth is not reduced to being merely a story; it is not simply a fairy tale or an allegorical narrative. Nor is it a child’s or primitive’s world-view. And it avoids the pit fall of reducing myth solely to false belief. The definition offered here was the advantage of including myths at a variety of levels and in different contexts. It stresses that myth is something thought to be real and believable; that it adds dramatic color and force to an otherwise inchoate reality; that it re-presents what we take to be real, and thus serves important psychological and social functions for us; and that it gives us a world out there that we can cope with and understand.
IV. Science, Myths, and Paradigms
In science, including the social sciences, there is a thin line between science and myth. The social sciences, like any other academic discipline occurs in time. As a discipline operates in time, it develops a paradigm, or overarching image and language, that provides a satisfying world-view for a community of scholars. In many ways, a paradigm is a myth, a symbolic reality created and shared by people who communicate with each other. Paradigms reign chiefly because they offer a working myth, a set of assumptions and images to guide research and to provide a comfortable feeling that the community of scholars is undertaking significant work and solving significant problems. But because of the persistence of anomalies—nagging, insoluble problems—or simply because of generational change and the appearance of other competing paradigms that are more appealing to the young or satisfying to the skeptical, paradigms change or are discarded. Paradigms succeed each other, but there is no necessary historical progress or constant accumulation of knowledge. Time works changes in imaginative myths a discipline holds and in the database it manipulates, but there
is no guarantee that a discipline progresses toward definitive answers. Further relationships of science to myth include:
Mythical and scientific thinking are related but distinct activities.
In myth the mode of knowing is supplanted by the belief that something is forever known.
In scientific thought knowledge is not fixed but tentative; the search for understanding is not closed but forever open; constructions are not taken as real but are subject to experimentation and novel, truth-defying reconstructions.
The realities created by scientific thought about some phenomenon are plural, each being recognized as but one of possible multiple interpretations of the event.
In myth there is but one interpretation, one reality of what happened.
If everybody has to believe in something why myths in a scientific age? Because myths aid in comprehension, myths forge common bonds; myths offer identities, myths help us get our way.
V. Groupthink: The Process By Which Groups Reach Decisions
Irving Janis coined the word “groupthink” and defined it as “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures. Janis makes no claim that groupthink completely explains the process of small group decision making. He offers it as an example of the potential importance of small group dynamics, especially the possible detrimental effects of the concurrence-seeking tendency in a cohesive group. Janis posits a detailed conceptual framework of antecedent conditions that can give rise to concurrence-seeking (groupthink), which in turn leads to symptoms of groupthink and defective decision making, resulting in low probability of a successful outcome.
As the assigned article, the abbreviated, ill-fated video of Janis explaining groupthink, as well as Janis’ book on groupthink illustrate, the tendency of members of a group to strive for agreement--concurrence-seeking which is at the core of groupthink. The failure to engage in critical thinking as a result of striving for concurrence can lead to potential trouble.
In his writings Janis lists eight major symptoms of groupthink:
Illusion of Invulnerability—
Underlies a group’s willingness to take excessive risks. Janis gives as an example the Navy’s assumption that Pearl Harbor was impregnable.
In important decisions there is an increased feeling of stress within the group. This leads to an increase “we feeling,” solidarity within the group. Along with that is the tendency to look at out-groups as the enemy and this is where an important symptom of groupthink occurs, the shared stereotype against the enemy. The group advising President Truman to cross the 48th parallel in North Korea is an example of shared stereotype. They assumed China was a puppet of Russia and that neither would intervene to stop the American advance. That decision led to one of the worst defeats, at that time, suffered by American troops on foreign soil.
Rationalization is a very human response, everybody engages in it. It is necessary for all of us to feel what we are doing is wise, that we are a respectful and respectable upright people. What happens in a group is that when a group is converging on a given course of action they begin to pool their sources and collectively begin to evolve certain rationalizations that they all share. And, that helps all of them to maintain their self-esteem and self-respect.
Illusion of Morality—
The group believes in the inherent morality of the group. This enables them to avoid getting into moral and ethical implications of their actions. This illusion of morality allows them to maintain their self-esteem.
A basic irony in group dynamics is that the freer the climate in the group the greater the tendency there is towards self-censorship.
Illusion of Unanimity—
The illusion of unanimity is a symptom that fosters self-censorship because everybody has the sense that the group is in basic agreement and none really wants to break the unanimity so they remain silent about their doubts. The decision by President Kennedy to listen to his group’s decision to support an invasion of Cuba which led to the “Bay of Pigs” debacle.
When someone rarely speaks out in a highly cohesive group concerning their doubts, direct pressure is applied to the deviant. It is made clear to the deviant that what that person is saying is not acceptable given the consensus of the group.
The mind guard protects the leader and/or the group from disturbing ideas. Opinions divergent from the group consensus are withheld from the group.
VI. Assumptions About Group Conflict
1. General common assumptions about group conflict.
a. Conflict can be associated with both negative and positive words, but most people communicate about conflict and view it as an activity that is totally negative and utterly without redeeming social value.
b. Conflict is innate in all humans.
c. Social conflict is created and constructed by the members of societies and cultures.
d. Conflict is an aberration, a dysfunctional process.
e. Conflict occurs because it is functional.
f. Conflict is a consequence of poor communication, misperception, miscalculation, socialization, and other unconscious processes.
g. Conflict is a natural process common to all societies with predictable dynamics and subject to constructive regulation through communication.
h. Because of the contradictory views of conflict we just discussed, we grow up with confusion over when conflict is helpful and OK or when it is bad and should be avoided.
2. Popular assumptions that work against a positive view of conflict.
a. Harmony is normal and conflict is abnormal.
b. Conflicts and disagreements are the same phenomena.
c. Conflict is pathological.
d. Conflict should be reduced or avoided, never escalated.
e. Conflict is sometimes assumed to be the result of clashes of personalities.
f. Many people mistakenly assume that human aggression and peaceful conflict resolution cannot coexist.
g. The primary emotion associated with conflict is anger or hostility.
3. Conflict defined from a communication perspective.
“Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals.”
4. Implications of conflict assumptions and misconceptions for our lives
Communication is a central element in all interpersonal conflict.
VII. The Abilene Paradox: The Process By Which Groups Fail To Manage Agreement
Jerry Harvey adds an important dimension to the understanding of group dynamics. His contribution shares the concept of concurrence with Janis’ “groupthink” theory. For Harvey, concurrence or agreement is critical to understanding how people deal with each other in groups and organizations. He calls his theory the “Abilene Paradox.” Simply put the Abilene Paradox states that:
Groups frequently take actions contrary to what any of their members really want to do and defeat the very purposes those groups set out to achieve.
The road to Abilene usually begins with everybody in the group agreeing about the basic nature of the situation and what they want to do. But, somehow they fail to communicate their agreement and based upon such faulty information they do just the opposite. Strange as it may seem Harvey’s trip to Abilene led him to conclude that the family was not really in conflict. In fact, the Abilene Paradox says, it is the inability to manage agreement, rather than conflict, that is the single most pressing issue of modern groups and organizations. The more he studied group behavior the more Harvey became convinced that nobody was immune to the Abilene Paradox, including him.
It is absurd that people take actions in contradiction to what they really want and as a result compounding their problems rather than solving them. Of course, absurdity is an essential component of the Abilene Paradox, whether it is couples, corporations, professors, or even nations. But the big question is why? Harvey has concluded that to answer that question we must come to grips with the psychological principles from which it draws its enormous power. These principles include:
1. Action Anxiety
This concept is based on the premise that each of us when confronted with a potential conflict in a group, knows the sensible action we should take, but when it comes time to take action we become so anxious that we can’t carry through with the action that we know is best.
2. Negative Fantasies
We often conjure up elaborate negative fantasies of the disasters we are certain will occur if we do act sensibly. Such dire predictions give us an iron glad excuse for inaction when what is called for is action. Negative fantasy provides a bizarre justification for not taking a risk. But can we ever really play it safe? Harvey says the answer is “no.” Real risk is a condition of human existence, all of our actions have consequences that may be worse than standing still. But if we are afraid to accept real risk as one of life’s givens then we may choose a trip to Abilene instead, a choice that often has far greater risks. So what do we fear?
3. Separation Anxiety--Fear of the Known
Do we fear the unknown? More likely it is something we know rather well. We fear being ostracized, being branded a non-team player, in short we fear separation. But therein, lies a paradox within a paradox.
4. Psychological Reversal of Risk and Certainty
Because, the more unwilling we are to risk separation the more likely we are to experience the separation we so fear. Our negative fantasies become more real to us than the certain disaster of pursuing what we know is a hopeless course of action.
5. Avoiding the Trip to Abilene
Harvey argues there are ways in which individuals and groups can avoid the trip to Abilene. Avoid scapegoating, because focusing on conflict when agreement is the issue is an act totally devoid of reality. By the time a group reaches that position all its members are victims.
In a sense, all passengers on the trip to Abilene conspire with one another to bring about the problem and all are to blame for the conspiracy, unless, of course, a way is found to break the grip of the conspiracy.
All members of the group are equally responsible for the conspiracy. Each of us has a choice. We can remain silent, or we can confront the group, not with new information, but with what the group already agrees upon.
We can cope with the Abilene Paradox, but it is not easy. Each individual has to calculate the real risk of taking an action, as well as the risk of taking no action at all. Then, what is required is confrontation in a group setting where individuals own up to their own beliefs and feelings without attributing beliefs and feelings to others.
It doesn’t seem possible that something so simple as being in agreement into such a problem. How can we tell when we are on the trail to Abilene? Harvey says, remember his family’s original trip to Abilene. First, everyone agreed about the nature of the situation and what he or she wanted to do. Second, they failed to communicate that agreement. Third, they took action contrary to what they really wanted to do. As a result, everyone experienced anger and frustration.
The trip to Abilene is a paradox alright and paradoxes are usually such because they are based on a logic different than what we have come to understand or expect. Harvey has concluded that if we can break that logic and have the courage of our convictions our group or organization can grow and flourish.