Going With the Flow: The Influence of “Groupthink” on Mediation Outcomes

By: Ira S. Bergman
Florida Supreme Court Certified Circuit Civil Mediator

What do the Bay of Pigs invasion, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Spacepeople around table all sharing thoughts with hands in the air Shuttle Challenger disaster have in common? Answer: They all have been cited as examples of how “groupthink” can lead to disastrous consequences. In better understanding the phenomenon of groupthink, and being better able to spot it when it begins to negatively affect decision-making in a group dynamic, it may be possible to make mediations more effective.

In the early morning of April 17, 1961, small boats filled with armed Cuban exiles, backed by the U.S. Government, came ashore at Playa Larga on the Southern coast of Cuba. The route to Playa Larga took them through a relatively narrow waterway known as the Bay of Pigs, a name which has since become synonymous with well-intentioned but futile military action. Their hope was to overthrow the communist government of Fidel Castro and restore democracy to Cuba. Hope faded quickly, however, as Castro’s forces overran the invaders in a matter of days.

In retrospect, looking at the cold, hard numbers, the outcome of the Bay of Pigs invasion seems pre-ordained. The invading force totaled approximately 1,200 men. They were met by tens of thousands of Cuban troops. How, then, did some of the brightest military minds in the United States – as well as President Kennedy – sign off on the invasion? Perhaps the answer lies in the concept of groupthink.

Groupthink is the undesirable byproduct of the innate human desire for harmony in a group decision-making setting. In such a setting, this desire for harmony has the tendency to make people conform their views to what they believe is the consensus of the group.

As explained by Jay Dixit in his 2021 article “Groupthink: Origins of a Word,” this leads to a dynamic where “[l]oud voices overpower quieter ones, dissent is quashed, and the outcome is flawed.” Such was the case with the Bay of Pigs, where dissenters minimized their doubts in the face of a majority of officials who fervently believed in the righteousness of their cause while grossly underestimating Castro’s military resolve.

Almost twenty years before the Bay of Pigs invasion, on December 7, 1941 — a date, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt so aptly characterized, that will live in infamy — Japan launched a full-scale attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. While often described as a “surprise” attack, there were, in reality, numerous warnings that Japan was planning to attack the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The United States largely ignored these warnings. Could groupthink have played a role?

In his oft-cited 1971 article in Psychology Today entitled “Groupthink,” Irving Janis argues that groupthink caused U.S. military officials to downplay the risk of an attack on Pearl Harbor. Specifically, he concludes that an “illusion of invulnerability” shared by Admiral H.E. Kimmel and his inner circle caused them to become overly optimistic and willing to take extraordinary risks. He cites this “illusion of invulnerability” as one of the main symptoms of groupthink. He also suggests that Admiral Kimmel’s group failed to look at the situation through the eyes of the Japanese leaders, which he believed to be another manifestation of groupthink.

And what of the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986? The official inquiry into the Challenger disaster found that the direct cause was the malfunction of an O-ring seal on the right solid-rocket booster that caused the shuttle to explode 73 seconds after launching. But the commission also found “a serious flaw in the decision-making process leading up to the launch.” Is this too a consequence of groupthink? Some say yes.

As discussed, one of the hallmarks of groupthink is the “illusion of invulnerability.” With respect to Challenger, George Hardy (a NASA manager) allegedly discounted warnings about the problematic O-ring because the risk was “true of every other flight we have had.” In other words, previous successes led to overconfidence. Groupthink also involves the “illusion of morality,” i.e., belief in the inherent morality of the group. Thus, NASA managers attempted to prove that the launch was unsafe instead of the other way around, thus “shifting the moral rules under which they operated.” See Hughes and White, The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: A Classic Example of Groupthink.

Thinking about some of the symptoms of groupthink noted above, it is clear that each sides’ preparation for mediation could easily fall into this trap. Notably, groupthink is most likely to occur in a cohesive group. As discussed by Janis in his 1971 Psychology Today article:

The more cohesive the group, the greater the inner compulsion on the part of each member to avoid creating disunity, which inclines him to believe in the soundness of whatever proposals are promoted by the leader or by a majority of the group’s members.

In a typical first-party insurance dispute, there are usually two “groups”. On the plaintiffs’ side, the group might consist of a public adjuster, a homeowner(s), an expert(s) and counsel. On the defense side, the group might consist of a field adjuster, multiple individuals working at various levels of an insurance company, an expert(s) and counsel. As can readily be seen, there is a high level of cohesion in each of these groups, setting the stage for groupthink.

One can easily envision how groupthink might creep into mediation preparation. Take, for example, the “illusion of invulnerability.” It would be a mistake for group members on either side of a lawsuit to assume that, because they achieved a certain level of success in similar lawsuits, they will achieve a similar outcome in the subject lawsuit. Every lawsuit is different and, like the familiar warning given in the financial planning world, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The same holds true for the “illusion of morality” symptom of groupthink. Lawsuits are inherently contentious and therefore naturally lend themselves to a “we’re right and they’re wrong” mindset. Litigants can easily become convinced as to the righteousness of their claims or defenses. However, such rigid beliefs make it difficult to fully explore and analyze the weaknesses in a lawsuit. Absent this type of rigorous analysis, the case will not be correctly valued by one or both parties, thus reducing the chances that the case will be settled.

And so while you’re preparing for your next mediation, I encourage you to combat groupthink by promoting independent critical thinking within your group. It is only by engaging in a robust pre-mediation dialogue – without fear that non-conformity will be seen as a weakness or a threat to the group – that you will achieve a realistic valuation of your case and put yourself in the best position of resolving the case at mediation.