Watch Out for Groupthink

SMA News July 2014   

Message from the Chief, Safety and Mission Assurance


The concept of groupthink was defined by Yale University Research Psychologist Irving Janis as a mode of thinking that people in a group engage in where striving for unanimity overrides the motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.

Organizations that get stuck in groupthink may not adequately address risks associated with a decision or seek expert advice. These organizations may discard data that does not support the group's conclusion and discount dissenting opinions when offered. 

Simply put, succumbing to groupthink can lead to bad decisions, because the analysis that led to the decision is incomplete. Bad decisions can lead to mishaps, failed missions and fatalities. 

In his work, Janis described eight main symptoms of groupthink: 

  1. Illusion of Invulnerability: Members of the group ignore obvious danger, are overly optimistic and are willing to take extraordinary risks. 
  2. Collective Rationalization: Members of the group develop rationalizations to explain away any warning that is contrary to the group's thinking.
  3. Illusion of Morality: Members of the group believe their decisions are morally correct and ignore any ethical consequences of their decisions.
  4. Excessive Stereotyping: Members of the group construct negative stereotypes for rivals outside the group.
  5. Pressure for Conformity: Members of the group apply pressure to anyone in the group who expresses any doubt about the group's illusions, stereotypes, decisions or rationales. 
  6. Self-Censorship: Members of the group withhold dissenting views, keep silent about their misgivings and minimize the importance of their doubts. 
  7. Illusion of Unanimity: Members of the group falsely perceive that everyone agrees with the group's decision; silence is seen as consent.
  8. Mindguards: Some members of the group appoint themselves to the role of group protector from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.

You may experience a time when you are the only one in the room who disagrees with the group, but, where safety and mission success are concerned, it is very important that you speak up. It takes courage, but that initial discomfort is much better than a lifetime of regret. 

There are different avenues available for elevating safety and mission success concerns:

  • NASA's pathways for reporting safety and health concerns are documented in NPR 8715.1, NASA Occupational Safety and Health Programs. Click here for a summary.
  • NASA's formal dissenting opinion process is documented in NPD 1000.0, NASA Governance and Strategic Management Handbook. This process allows the dissenting party to formally request review and adjudication of a substantive disagreement with a decision or action that an individual judges is not in the best interest of NASA and is of sufficient importance that it warrants a timely review and decision by upper-level management.  

NASA counts on its workforce to voice safety, health and mission success concerns. I encourage you to bring these concerns to your management's attention so that they can be evaluated and addressed. 

We encourage you to share SMA News with your peers. We also want to hear about your stories and successes.

Let us know what information you'd like to see in future issues. Send your feedback and ideas for consideration to We look forward to hearing from you.

Terry Wilcutt
Chief, Safety and Mission Assurance