Beware Groupthink, Lest Discourse Breaks Down

Jan 23 , 2021
By Asegid Getachew

Few things could be said to be as prevalent in society as "groupthink," whether in Ethiopia or democratically mature countries such as the United States. It affects young and old, male and female, healthy and infirm, all equally, and contributes to breakdown in societal communication.

Jerry B. Harvey wrote about a form of groupthink in a now famous essay, "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement" in 1974. The article has since been used in academic courses and training sessions that focus on group decision making. It also introduced the term Abilene Paradox to the discourse.

The author starts by setting the scene where four close family members enjoy the company of one another despite a searing heat and a windy afternoon. The comfort of the afternoon, however, only lasted until one of them suddenly asked the group to venture to a place called Abilene, dozens of miles from home, to have dinner at a cafeteria. One by one, the other family members buy the idea of the trip, and off they go to Abilene. Boiling heat, a brutal sandstorm and a terrible meal at the cafeteria make the journey dreadful.

The members of the family come back home only to recognise that the trip was in no one’s best interest. All of them start blaming and recriminating one another saying that they decided to do it for fear of disappointing the other. Each one of them complained that had it not been for the other members of the family, staying home would have been the better choice.

This is a case of paradox, because four individuals are voluntarily participating in a decision-making environment whose premise negates the very purpose they stand for.

Dysfunctional group decision making is dominated by groupthink, facilitated through an inability to manage agreement, that lures members of the group into making an ineffective decision without evaluating various alternatives. Such a decision making pursuit fails to manage agreements among groups and leads to an outcome that is antithetical to the objectives the members hope to achieve.

Harvey indicates that individuals party to such decision making privately agree on what they want and the means to achieve it. They also fail to accurately communicate what they want to the group. The group then uses such inaccurate information to make a decision. And as any reasonable person might expect, the decision will not satisfy the members the group. Members then start to blame others for the undesired outcome. Most importantly, the group will fall into the vicious circle of repeating the same paradox without addressing the main issue at hand: the management of agreement.

We all have ventured into just such a treacherous journey and gotten trapped in the paradox. We may have wanted to appease a friend, not wanted to be left alone or were eager to avoid the potential sanction that comes from saying “No”.

One of the major strategies to avoid falling into this trap is to recognise that decision making is not about reaching a unanimous agreement on an issue. Rather it is about carefully evaluating diverse viewpoints (alternatives) on the basis of relevant criteria and selecting the one that best fulfills our objectives.

A member to a group decision-making process should recognise that the viewpoints, opinions and suggestions they put on the table are valuable input to the group's effort to achieve something tangible. The idea one puts forth in such situations may potentially help the group from suffering the agony of an undesired outcome. It also saves the precious time and energy that can potentially be used to undertake other productive activities.

Management of agreement to avoid groupthink would especially come in handy in our national discourse, where each political group has built an echo chamber around themselves. This makes it impossible to consider better options and prevents the country from coming up with constructive ideas.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 23,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1082]

 is an assistant professor and research scholar at Andhra University. He can be reached at

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