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Risky Business

August 2012
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Groupthink–a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972)–occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of ‘mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.’ Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making” (source: According to “The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking.” 

A classic example of “groupthink” in action which resulted in disastrous consequences occurred in the surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following information is taken from

“The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a prime example of groupthink. A number of factors such as shared illusions and rationalizations contributed to the lack of precaution taken by Naval officers based in Hawaii. The United States had intercepted Japanese messages and they discovered that Japan was arming itself for an offensive attack. Washington took action by warning officers stationed at Pearl Harbor, but their warning was not taken seriously. They assumed that Japan was taking measures in the event that their embassies and consulates in enemy territories were usurped.

“The Navy and Army in Pearl Harbor also shared rationalizations about why an attack was unlikely. Some of them included:

  • The Japanese would never dare attempt a full-scale surprise assault against Hawaii because they would realize that it would precipitate an all-out war, which the United States would surely win.
  • The Pacific Fleet concentrated at Pearl Harbor was a major deterrent against air or naval attack.
  • Even if the Japanese were foolhardy to send their carriers to attack us [the United States], we could certainly detect and destroy them in plenty of time.
  • No warships anchored in the shallow water of Pearl Harbor could ever be sunk by torpedo bombs launched from enemy aircraft.

“In addition, officers succumbed to social pressures and did not want to face social scrutiny by objecting to the common belief that Japan would not attack Pearl Harbor.”

I got to thinking about this whole concept of “groupthink” from a devotion I read this morning by Dr. Charles Swindoll titled, “Whose Team?” Here it is:

Whose Team?

Joshua 24:14-15; I Corinthians 6:9-11

When the death of Richard Nixon and the twentieth anniversary of his resignation were strangely juxtaposed only a few months apart, the networks were overloaded with revisits to and retrospectives on Watergate.

I was intrigued by a book by Leo Rangell, M.D., a psychiatrist who explores what he calls “the compromise of integrity” in his careful, articulate analysis of the inner workings in the head and psyche of Richard M. Nixon and several of his closest confidants. It’s called, appropriately, “The Mind of Watergate.” Within the book is the transcript of a verbal investigation between Senator Howard Baker and young Herbert L. Porter. Here is just a small portion of it.

Baker: “Did you ever have any qualms about what you were doing? . . . Did you ever think of saying, ‘I do not think this is quite right.’ . . . Did you ever think of that?”

Porter: “Yes, I did.”

Baker: “What did you do about it?”

Porter: “I did not do anything.”

Baker: “Why didn’t you?”

Porter: “In all honesty, probably because of the fear of the group pressure that would ensue, of not being a team player.”

Porter’s answer keeps coming back to haunt me these days. How much of that whole, ugly nightmare could have been prevented if only someone had had the courage to stand alone? If only the fear of doing wrong had been greater than “the fear of group pressure”?

It’s terribly hard to stand pat and buck the tide . . . alone.

All this strikes much closer to home than a break-in in D.C. or a breakdown in the Oval Office. It’s a major motivation behind experimentation with drugs or sexual promiscuity or wholesale commitment to some cult or cooperation with an illegal financial scheme. Group pressure is terribly threatening.

So be on guard! When push comes to shove, think independently. Think biblically. If you fail to do this, you’ll lose your ethical compass.

Watergate is a timeless lesson: It is not as hard to know what is right to do as to do what you know is right.

If being a team player requires doing what is wrong, you’re on the wrong team.

Source: Day by Day by Dr. Charles Swindoll, p. 225
Word Publishing, Thomas Nelson, 2000

We live in an age of compromise . . . and it’s all around us. Whether in the work setting, or a church setting, or down at the local bar or some other type of social setting; whether conforming to family pressure, or peer pressure, or some other type of group pressure–it’s everywhere. I grew up during the “hippie revolution” of the Sixties and the pressure to do drugs and engage in sexual promiscuity was enormous. ENORMOUS! And that kind of pressure exists everywhere today–cheating on income taxes in order to keep more money for yourself; unethical business practices that scam and steal from their customers; relational compromises made everyday, like adultery; coworkers sabotaging other coworkers to get ahead. And the list goes on . . . .

A devotion titled, Risky Business,” in Our Daily Bread states the following:

As the worldwide financial crisis deepened in 2010, executives of a global banking firm were investigated for deceiving their customers about the risk involved in certain investments they were selling. While promising a high rate of return, the banking firm knew that the investments were destined to fail, leaving those who purchased them with nothing.

Deception is nothing new. Jesus described Satan as one who “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him . . . for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). The enemy of our souls tells us, “Live only for the present,” when he knows it will result in our eternal loss.

Jesus, on the other hand, did not offer His disciples a life of prosperity and ease but called them to self-sacrifice and identification with Him. After telling them that He would be killed and raised from the dead, Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

There are two voices telling us where to invest our lives. It’s risky business to follow the wrong one.

When you hear the Shepherd’s voice
As He calls you, “Come to Me,”
In your life make Him your choice
And His faithful follower be. ~Hess

Read Luke 9:18-27

If we hold on to God’s truth, we won’t be trapped by Satan’s lies.

I Corinthians 6:9-11 in The Message Bible states: “Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.”

Those are very serious words, folks. If you call yourself Christian you cannot ignore them. If you are a part of any group, any friendship, any work setting, any social setting that requires you to go along with the crowd to be accepted when you know it is wrong, run from that group, friendship, work setting, social setting or crowd.

To do wrong is never right no matter if you have to stand alone. The consequences are staggering. As Dr. Swindoll states, “Watergate is a timeless lesson: It is not as hard to know what is right to do as to do what you know is right.”

Are you willing to do what you know is right even if you stand alone? And do it NOW? Don’t lose your ethical compass!

But don’t wait, or it might be too late . . . .

YouTube Video: A very good “Groupthink Presentation” showing the dynamics of groupthink at work with background music. It is 5:46 minutes in length.

Photo credit here



  1. mary green says:

    another good one sara. i couldn’t help but think about the school district i worked for and how ostracized those with differing opinions were; the motive for not saying anything the attempt to keep one’s job happens ALL the time!

    talk to u later, mary


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