America in the Grip of Groupthink

Photo Credit: Jason Zeis on Unsplash.

By Natalia Holliday, Editor-in-Chief


At an October 4, 2018 protest against the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, comedienne Amy Schumer declared to a crowd gathering at the steps of the Supreme Court that “a vote for Kavanaugh is a vote saying women don’t matter.”[1] During a 2017 Trump rally, Arizona state senator Sylvia Allen praised the President for being “anti-left,” “anti-PC,” and “anti-stupid.”[2] A 30-second browse at the Facebook page for “Proud Liberals,” followed by 2.5 million Facebook users, displays an obsessive love for the Obamas and Stephen Colbert alongside a disgusted hatred for Republicans.[3] And let us not forget the definitive insult of 2016 against liberals: snowflake.[4]

Scientific American put it well while acknowledging the “exaggeration”: “Republicans think of Democrats as godless, unpatriotic, Volvo-driving, France-loving, elitist latte guzzlers, whereas Democrats dismiss Republicans as ignorant, NASCAR-obsessed, gun-fondling religious fanatics.”[5]

Perhaps it is an exaggeration, but our sociopolitical world seems more and more to operate in a “blue versus red,” “us versus them” manner, with political intolerance at an apparent boiling point.

Amy Schumer’s remarks at the anti-Kavanaugh protest chalked every thoughtfully-considered vote in Kavanaugh’s favor up to misogyny, as if his immense career on the D.C. Circuit[6] and possibility that he truly believed he had never assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford were irrelevant and non-existent. On the other side, conservatives crying “snowflake” trivialized valid efforts to bring the law up to speed on social rights, as if we live in a magical social utopia where hate crimes don’t exist, and people sharing their stories are just victimizing themselves for attention. Both sides do what they can to deflate the veracity of the other, stalemating progress. Why?

In 1971, psychologist Irving L. Janis penned an article titled “Groupthink,” in which he analyzed a phenomenon characterized by eight symptoms: invulnerability, morality, rationalization, stereotypes, pressure, self-censorship, unanimity, and “mindguards.”[7]  Invulnerability and morality relate to the “overestimation” of the “in-group,” or the group whose members share a common “identity,” so to speak.[8] The rationalization and stereotype symptoms speak to the in-group’s closed-mindedness.[9] The final four symptoms, pressure, self-censorship, unanimity, and mindguards, produce coercion towards uniformity.[10]

According to Janis, the in-group experiences an illusion of invulnerability to obvious dangers, such that it is overly-optimistic about its invulnerability and fails to guard against the dangers.[11] Likewise, the in-group rationalizes away warnings and negative feedback in order to maintain the apparent validity of the group’s basic assumptions that guide its decisions.[12] “Victims of groupthink believe unquestioningly in the inherent morality of their in-group,” and they use stereotypes to dismiss “out-groups” as evil, weak, and stupid.[13] Any doubt about the validity of the in-group’s policies and arguments is met with direct pressure.[14] The members then self-censor, avoiding deviation from the majority and minimizing their own doubts as unimportant. Through this self-censorship, the illusion of unanimity is achieved.[15] Finally, members “appoint themselves as mindguards to protect the leader and fellow members from adverse information that might break the complacency they shared about the effectiveness and morality” of the in-group’s decisions.[16]

Collectively, those symptoms comprise the ultimate characteristic of groupthink: excessive “concurrence-seeking” by members of the in-group. When the concurrence goal becomes so dominant in the in-group that it “override[s a] realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action,” you’ve got a groupthink situation.[17]

Certain antecedent conditions lead to groupthink, which result in decision-making failures that have had global consequences. For instance, the group is insulated, lacks impartial leadership and norms requiring methodical procedures, and is homogeneous in social background and ideology.[18] Those “structural faults,” coupled with provocative crisis-type situations, result in defective decision-making and potentially catastrophic events.[19] Janis developed his theory by analyzing foreign policy and military disasters, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, and the escalation of the Vietnam War.[20]

Although Janis and later groupthink researchers contained the theory to small groups of tight-knit policymakers, some scholars note its apt, although imperfect, application to wider social contexts. While teaching a graduate seminar at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, Frederick M. Hess posed the question of the value of charter schools to the class.[21] A divided class cited to research to stand behind its respective positions and couldn’t fathom how the other side “didn’t get it.”[22]

It was an unsurprising result to Hess, given the circumstances that inspired the question.

In fact, the query he posed had a far broader application[23] – a Massachusetts referendum on expanding charter schools had drawn intense debates across the state.[24] “Supporters [of charter schools were] reflexively attacked by teacher unions as anti-education, and opponents [were] dismissed by charter backers as selfish racists.”[25] The referendum was eventually rejected by Massachusetts voters,[26] but not without nasty mudslinging in the name of the best interests of children.

Hess wondered how “smart, informed people [can] look at the same facts and see them so differently?”[27]

Certainly, our personal biases and values affect our individual perceptions of the meaning of information.[28] That’s old news. But Hess pointed out that in practice, it isn’t so much that we’re always interpreting the same information differently, but that we tend to expose ourselves only to people and information that “reflect and reinforce our biases.”[29] In other words, we isolate ourselves from “out-groups.”

“The results of [social] isolation are lamentable,” wrote sociologist Victor S. Yarros in his 1921 article Isolation and Social Conflict.[30] “Ignorance, profound prejudice, distrust, suspicion, misinterpretation of motives, perversion of purposes, incredible blindness to facts – these are the unavoidable effects of the high walls which separate class from class, set from set, group from group, school from school, in modern society.”[31]

We see these results continue to play out in America today. We all know now that Kavanaugh was confirmed and sworn in in early October.[32] According to Amy Schumer, everyone who voted for him is a misogynist. And who voted for Kavanaugh’s confirmation? All forty-nine Senate Republicans and one West Virginian Democrat.[33] Schumer’s statement, which was a pervasive belief among those who opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, reinforced the “in-group’s” stance that the “out-group” was evil, and it arguably acted as a pressure on internal dissenters to comply with the in-group’s stance or be considered a misogynist.

On the other side of the same coin, Dr. Ford was forced out of her own home due to the volume of death threats she received for coming out with her story and testifying.[34] At a rally in Mississippi, the crowd cheered and laughed while President Trump mocked Dr. Ford’s testimony.[35] At the same rally, President Trump claimed Justice Kavanaugh’s life was “in tatters” because of the treatment he received by “evil” Democrats.[36] Groupthink lingered in the subtext – the out-group’s effort to get to the bottom of a serious and credible accusation against a “member” of the in-group was really a baseless affront intended to undermine the in-group’s legitimacy. Certainly, it had nothing to do with a concern that the accusations might be true.

All this national division, polarization, frustration, and hatred. How do we get out of the gridlock-prone mess? Janis set forth several recommendations specific to foreign policy decision-making, but from them we can extract general themes that apply to the average politically-aware American. Promotion of internal constructive criticism, acceptance of external critique, an impartial approach to issues, and maintaining diversity are key ingredients to success.[37] Critically, “diversity” is used in both the traditional demographic sense and in terms of “views, values, attitudes, perspectives and mindsets.”[38]

Yarros also advocates diversity as the way to get past the “lamentable results” of isolation. Nearly 100 years after he published his article, a passage still rings true:

“‘Get understanding’ is the injunction of every sage and humanitarian. But how is understanding to be achieved? Not from books alone, surely,… can we learn to understand our fellow-men, or ourselves, for that matter. We can understand men only by living and working with them, by ‘matching minds,’ by studying and solving common problems together with them, by patiently seeking to apprehend other points of view, and putting ourselves in the place of those who seem to us, in our different place, unreasonable or selfish and hard-hearted.”[39]

Perhaps Yarros had an idealistic view of how willing people would be to set their personal views aside for the sake of the greater good. But was it worth it to suggest? Given the products of isolation playing out in our political arena, I’d venture to say it certainly was.





[1] Marissa J. Lang, Hundreds arrested in protest against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Wash. Post (Oct. 4, 2018),

[2] David Smith, ‘He’s anti-left, anti-PC, and anti-stupid’: Trump supporters in their own words, The Guardian (Aug. 23, 2017, 9:57 AM),

[3] Proud Liberals, Facebook (last visited Nov. 9, 2018),

[4] Rebecca Nicholson, ‘Poor little snowflake’ – the defining insult of 2018, The Guardian (Nov. 28, 2016, 10:02 AM),

[5] Emily Laber-Warren, Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives, Sci. Am. (Sept. 1, 2012),

[6] Michael John Garcia, Cong. Research Serv. R45269, Judicial Opinions of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh (2018), available at

[7] Irving L. Janis, Groupthink, Psychol. Today Mag., 1971, at 85, available at

[8] Paul’t Hart, Irving L. Janis’ Victims of Groupthink, 12 Pol. Psychol. 247, 259 (June 1991).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Janis, supra note 7 at 85.

[12] Id. at 86.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 87.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 88.

[17] Id. at 84.

[18] t’Hart, supra note 8, at 257.

[19] Id. at 258.

[20] Janis, supra note 7, at 84.

[21] Frederick M. Hess, Education Groupthink, U.S. News & World Rep. (Nov. 8, 2016, 8:00 AM),

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] David Scharfenberg, Mass. Voters reject ballot question on charter school, Bos. Globe (Nov. 8, 2016),

[25] Hess, supra note 14.

[26] Scharfenberg, supra note 17.

[27] Hess, supra note 14.

[28] See e.g. Kurt Hugenberg and Galen V. Bodenhausen Facing Prejudice: Implicit Prejudice and the Perception of Facial Threat, 14 Psychol. Sci. 640 (Nov. 2003).

[29] Hess, supra note 14.

[30] Victor S. Yarros, Isolation and Social Conflicts, 27 Am. J. Soc. 211, 213 (Sept. 1921).

[31] Id. at 213.

[32] Greg Stohr and Sahil Kapur, Here’s What It Was Like Inside Justice Kavanaugh’s First Supreme Court Argument, Bloomberg (Oct. 9, 2018, 2:40 PM),

[33] Emily Knapp, Brent Griffiths and Jon McClure, Kavanaugh confirmed: Here’s how senators voted, Politico (Oct. 6, 2018, 4:02 PM),

[34] Emily Birnbaum, Christine Blasey Ford still unable to live at home due to death threats, lawyers say, The Hill (Oct. 7, 2018, 8:17 PM ET),

[35] Trump mocks Christine Blasey Ford over Kavanaugh allegations, Al Jazeera (Oct. 3, 2018),

[36] Id.

[37] Janis, supra note 7, at 89.

[38] Hess, supra note 14.

[39] Yarros, supra note 23, at 212.

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