There are two contrasting sides to the brainstorming/group collaboration continuum; groupthink and polythink. Scholars define groupthink theory as a “concurrence-seeking tendency” where group members strive for unanimity that overrides the motivation to “realistically appraise” alternatives (Yetiv 2003). Conversely, polythink is where too many contrasting, disjointed, or fragmented opinions in the decision-making process result in a lack of cohesion and collaboration between members (Mintz and Wayne 2016). These definitions highlight the primary destructive properties of each side of the continuum in collaborative analysis and decision-making. Many academic articles regard polythink as the “destructive” group process. However, one could argue that groupthink can be equally damaging and ineffective.
The destructive elements within groupthink typically stem from stressful decisions or biased leadership, influenced by in-group norms – the status quo – and collective rationalizations, resulting in actions not based on diligent or informed deliberations (Schafer and Crichlow 2002). Similarly, Isenberg (1986) states that “pluralistic ignorance” occurs in groupthink situations because members will often self-censor and not accurately communicate their true beliefs, as Schafer and Crichlow (2002) also mentioned. However, Isenberg (1986) noted that there were divergences in groupthink causation between mere exposure and persuasive arguments, especially when considering factors such as social desirability, compelling argumentation, attitude polarization, rational argumentation, and social comparison.
Management styles, context, and internal conflict between advisory group members are central to creating polythink’s destructiveness. “Turf wars,” disagreement with the leader, or leadership indecisiveness also play a role in cultivating detrimental polythink debate (Barr and Mintz 2018; Mintz and Wayne 2016). Similarly, actively trying to avoid groupthink can trigger polythink within an advisory group. However, an element that articles related to polythink do not cover, but Whyte (1989) did regarding groupthink, was acceptability and risk-taking/aversion by individuals or entities within a decision-making group. For example, one or more advisors might be unwilling to cross a specific line the others agree on, or, conversely, their recommended course of action is too extreme for the rest. These hardlines can undermine collaborative efforts, often manifesting in information leaks, lack of communication, and reassessment aversion (Mintz and Wayne 2016).
As mentioned previously, the divergence between consensus-building and groupthink lies predominately in informed and diligent deliberations (Schafer and Crichlow 2002). Aldag and Fuller (1993) assert that the advisory panel should comprise a subtle mix of cohesion and conflict to provide diverse perspectives for effective group decision-making. Kelman, Sanders, and Pandit (2017) also emphasize the necessity of diversity in advisory groups. However, Sterns and Sundelius (1994) state that more assertive members might manipulate the composition of the opposition to include newer/insecure members or those whose opinions conflict with the majority. Redd (2005) and Mitchell (2010) highlight these dynamics related to former President Clinton’s decision-making process to conduct military actions in Serbia.
Burning NIS oil refinery in Novi Sad during 1999. NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (March 24, 1999) Source.
In conclusion, Schafer and Crichlow (1996) state that decision-makers can mitigate intra-group conflicts and manipulation by forming advisory committees before a crisis arises. Although experts do not generally consider Operation Desert Storm a fiasco like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the overly collegial composition of former President Bush’s advisory board resulted in defective decision-making processes that did not fully solve the conflict (Yetiv 2003). Unique political, bureaucratic, and organizational factors, including individual personalities, make this challenging but allows decision-makers to structure their advisory councils to avoid both groupthink and paralyzing analysis, such as in the case of Clinton’s decision-making process in Kosovo, and be more like Kennedy’s ExCom during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Aldag, Ramon J. and Sally R. Fuller. 1993. “Beyond Fiasco: A Reappraisal of the Groupthink Phenomenon and a New Model of Group Decision Processes.” Psychological Bulletin 113 (3) (05): 533-552. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.113.3.533.
Barr, Kasey, and Alex Mintz. “Public Policy Perspective on Group Decision-Making Dynamics in Foreign Policy.” Policy Studies Journal 46, no. 1 (2018), S69-S90. doi:10.1111/psj.12249.
Isenberg, Daniel J. 1986. “Group Polarization: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50 (6) (06): 1141-1151. doi:https://doi-org.ezproxy1.apus.edu/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1681.
Kelman, Steven, Ronald Sanders, and Gayatri Pandit. 2017. “‘Tell It Like It Is’: Decision Making, Groupthink, and Decisiveness among U.S. Federal Subcabinet Executives.” Governance 30 (2): 245–61. doi:10.1111/gove.12200.
Mintz, Alex, and Carly Wayne. 2016. “The Polythink Syndrome and Elite Group Decision-Making.” Political Psychology 37 (February): 3–21. doi:10.1111/pops.12319.
Mitchell, David. 2010. “Does Context Matter? Advisory Systems and the Management of the Foreign Policy Decision-Making Process.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 40 (4): 631–59. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2010.03804.x.
Redd, Steven B. 2005. “The Influence of Advisers and Decision Strategies on Foreign Policy Choices: President Clinton’s Decision to Use Force in Kosovo.” International Studies Perspectives 6 (1): 129–50. doi:10.1111/j.1528-3577.2005.00198.x.
Schafer, Mark and Scott Crichlow. 1996. “Antecedents of Groupthink: A Quantitative Study.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 40 (3) (09): 415.
Schafer, Mark, and Scott Crichlow. 2002. “The Process-Outcome Connection in Foreign Policy Decision Making: A Quantitative Study Building on Groupthink.” International Studies Quarterly 46 (1): 45. doi:10.1111/1468-2478.00222.
Stern, Eric, and Bengt Sundelius. 1994. “The Essence of Groupthink.” International Studies Quarterly 38 (2): 101. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=tsh&AN=9502230813&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Whyte, Glen. 1989. “Groupthink Reconsidered.” Academy of Management.the Academy of Management Review 14 (1) (01): 40
Yetiv, Steve A. 2003. “Groupthink and the Gulf Crisis.” British Journal of Political Science 33 (07): 419. doi:https://doi-org.ezproxy1.apus.edu/10.1017/S0007123403000231.
Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.