Printable Version
Pronunciation: grup-thingk Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: Yale psychologist Irving Janis originally defined groupthink as "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when . . . strivings for unanimity override . . . motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." In other words, the surrender of independent thought to group dynamics.

Notes: Groupthink is not evil; it is an attempt by members of a prestigious group to contribute to consensus, as well as to protect themselves by siding with the majority. However, it often leads to bad decisions. It is generally accepted as a major factor in President Roosevelt's ignoring evidence of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor, and in President Kennedy's miscalculations in invading Cuba. More recently it has been suggested that it was a factor in the miscalculation of weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda activity in Iraq.

In Play: Since the noun think means "one instance of thinking", groupthink, a mass noun, is not the best of terms. It was selected, no doubt, for its scary association with Orwell's doublethink and goodthink in the novel 1984, a novel much better known before that date. The sentiment is one long associated with the thought conformity of committees: "A camel is a horse designed by the groupthink of a committee."

Word History: The word think comes from Old English thencan (þencan) which originally meant "to seem", a sense that was preserved until Shakespeare's time in the word methinks "it seems to me". Its origin is Proto-Indo-European tong-/teng, which rarely appears outside the Germanic languages. We find it only in Albanian tang "resentment" and Tocharian, a dead language, tunk "love". The origin of methinks can be seen in such expressions as "Him thought that in his depth of sleepe he saw A Souldier arm'd" (Thomas Heywood 1635). In other words, "It seemed to him that . . . ". From this example it is easy to see how the sense "it seems to me" could slip into "I think".

Dr. Goodword,

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