Management at Work
The Verdict on Groupthink
I n the 1957 movie Twelve Angry Men, Henry Fonda plays a mild‑mannered architect who’s been selected to serve on a jury with 11 other white, middle‑class, middle‑aged men. Within the confines of the claustrophobic jury room, attitudes and preconceptions gradually begin to harden and the group’s decision seems increasingly like a foregone con‑ clusion—guilty in a case of capital murder. Fonda, however, has his doubts and starts to suggest alternative interpretations of the case until, by movie’s end, he has steered the group to a more cogently considered decision. “My favorite part of a trial,” reports one Texas attorney, “is when the judge . . . tells the jurors that deliberations should involve discussions, the questioning of their beliefs, and a willingness to change their minds. I really want jurors to do that,” he says, but “I don’t think they do.” Like many lawyers, he doubts very seriously if the kind of deliberative decision making extolled in Twelve Angry Men goes on in many real jury rooms. David A. Mitchell and Daniel Eckstein, authors of “Jury Dynamics and Decision‑Making: A Prescription for Group‑ think,” aren’t so sure either. They characterize a jury as “a unique variety of an autonomous work group”—“one in which group members are chosen, essentially at random, to perform a function of great importance for which they gen‑ erally have no direct training.” It’s a prescription, they sug‑ gest, for “group dynamics that are not conducive to quality decision making.” The problem, they argue, is groupthink, and they agree with Irving Janis, who conducted early studies on the phenomenon, that it infects groups whose members let their “strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Mitchell (a clinical psychologist) and Eckstein (a psy‑ chologist and consultant on leadership development) focus on Janis’s seven “antecedent conditions” for groupthink— factors that make groupthink more likely—in order to show how “the conditions under which juries operate” add up to “a substantial risk of jury decisions being tainted by groupthink”:
• Cohesiveness. A number of factors combine to ensure that the jury is a cohesive group. From the moment that jurors are selected, for example, they’re “treated as a unit [and] their individual identities become submerged in the group identity.” They eat together and often spend a great deal of time together prior to deliberations, and because they’re not supposed to discuss the case during
the trial itself, they often talk about such topics as the shared experience of being on a jury.
• Insulation. Once it’s impaneled, the jury is isolated from other individuals and groups; jurors are physi‑ cally separated from other people in the courthouse and sometimes even kept under guard to ensure their isolation.
• Lack of a tradition of impartial leadership. The only leadership in the group comes from the foreperson, who typically has an opinion on the case and therefore can’t really be impartial in relating to other members.
• Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures. Juries have no set rules for how to proceed in arriving at a deci‑ sion. In fact, the only specific requirement—to reach a unanimous decision—increases the likelihood of faulty decision making.
• Homogeneity of social background and ideology. Juries are rarely valid cross sections of the community. Desir‑ able jury members, for example, share certain qualities that lawyers look for, and because lawyers try to seat jurors who share qualities favorable to their cases, juries often tend toward homogeneity on those qualities.
• High stress from external threats/low hope of a solution better than the leader’s. This factor basically underscores the fact that stress—and the desire to avoid it—con‑ tribute to groupthink, and it reflects two hypotheses: (1) Jurors find that having to choose among unpleasant or complicated alternatives increases stress, especially if the group leader is authoritarian or tends to promote a particular decision. (2) Jurors are more likely to agree with the leader’s decision if they feel that opposing it will increase stress among group members.
• Temporarily low self‑esteem induced by situational factors. The more difficult it becomes to sort out alternatives and reach a decision, the lower a juror’s sense of self‑efficacy may become (see Chapter 15); in other words, as jurors lose their confidence in their ability to perform the task at hand, they may try to alleviate the feeling by taking refuge in conformity and consensus. Mitchell and Eckstein acknowledge that none of these seven conditions by itself “is sufficient to cause . . . group‑ think,” but they hasten to point out that “the greater the number of these conditions that exist, the greater the propen‑ sity toward” groupthink. They also admit that any group is susceptible to groupthink but emphasize that “the structure of the jury system places juries at particularly high risk. . . . Considering the regularity with which many of the above an‑ tecedent conditions occur in juries,” they argue, “the struc‑ ture of the jury system may not only be conducive but often helps create the occurrence of groupthink.” Finally, they observe that different types of groups make different types of errors, but caution that groupthink “increases the risk that all types of decision‑making errors will occur.”
1. In your experience, have you found that decision‑ making groups tend toward groupthink? If so, what fac‑ tors contributed to this tendency? If not, what factors helped to prevent it?
2. Review the steps in the rational decision-making model (especially steps 1–4). This model, of course, applies to individuals and might be difficult to apply to group decision‑making situations. If, however, you were a juror, how might you apply these steps to your own deliberations? In what ways might they give you some useful guidance? In what ways would you have to make adjustments because of the context (a trial) and situa‑ tion (a group process)?
3. In what ways might bounded rationality affect a juror’s approach to a decision? How about satisficing? Intu‑ ition? Ethics?
4. A recent study found that racially mixed juries “deliber‑ ated longer, raised more facts, and conducted broader and more wide‑ranging deliberations” than either all‑white or all‑black juries. Why do you think this was so? Do you think that “mixed” juries are more likely to avoid groupthink than racially homogeneous juries? Explain your reasoning.