Groupthink, (Fortune 1952)

July 22, 2012, 4:00 PM UTC

Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. The Penn State abuse scandal has rekindled interest in the term “groupthink,” one that was coined in the pages of this magazine in 1952. What follows is the original article on Groupthink, which was part of the magazine’s Communication series.

FORTUNE — A very curious thing has been taking place in this country — and almost without our knowing it. In a country where “individualism” — independence and self-reliance — was the watchword for three centuries, the view is now coming to be accepted that the individual himself has no meaning — except, that is, as a member of a group. “Group integration,” “group equilibrimn,” “interpersonal relations,” “training for group living,” “group dynamics,” “social interaction,” “social physics”; more and more the notes are sounded — each innocuous or legitimate in itself, but together a theme that has become unmistakable.

In a sense, this emphasis is a measure of success. We have had to learn how to get along in groups. With the evolution of today’s giant organizations — in business, in government, in labor, in education, in big cities-we have created a whole new social structure for ourselves, and one so complex that we’re still trying to figure out just what happened. But the American genius for cooperative action has served us well “Human relations” may not be an American invention, but in no country have people turned so wholeheartedly to the job of mastering the group skills on which our industrial society places such a premium.

But the pendulum has swung too far. Take, for example, the growing popularity of “social engineering” (FORTUNE, January, 1952) with its emphasis on the planned manipulation of the individual into the group role. Or, even more striking, the extraordinary efforts of some corporations to encompass the executive’s wife in the organization–often with the willing acquiescence of the wife in the merger (FORTUNE, October, 1951). And these, as we hope to demonstrate, are no isolated phenomena; recent public-opinion polls, slick-magazine fiction, current best-sellers, all document the same trend. Groupthink is becoming a national philosophy.

Groupthink being a coinage — and, admittedly, a loaded one — a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity — it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity- an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well. Three mutually supporting ideas form the underpinning: (1) that moral values and ethics are relative; (2) that what is important is the kind of behavior and attitudes that makes for the harmonious functioning of the group; (3) that the best way to achieve this is through the application of “scientific” techniques.

Once grasped, as the work of the social engineers makes clear, these principles lead us to an entirely new view of man. And what a dismal fellow he is ! For the man we are now presented with is Social Man — completely a creature of his environment, guided almost totally by the whims and prejudices of the group, and incapable of any real self-determination of his destiny. Only through social engineeringi. e., applied groupthink–can he be saved. The path to salvation, social engineers explain, lies in a trained elite that will benevolently manipiilate us into group harmony. And who’s to be the elite? Social engineers modestly clear their throats.

The vanishing layman

This vision of a new elite guiding us to the integrated life has inspired some interesting speculations (e.g., Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). The real danger, however, is something else again. It is not that the layman will be pushed around by the social engineers: it is that he will become one himself. Rather than the pawn of the experts, he will be the willing apprentice-and embrace groupthink as the road to security.

Is this coming to pass? Let’s look for a moment at the direction American values are taking among the oncoming generations. There has been a rather disturbing amount of evidence that they are changing rapidly-and in a way that must warm social engineers’ hearts. Every study made of the younger generation, every portrayal they make of themselves-from their dating habits to their artistic inclinations uncovers one clear fact: our youth is the most group-minded we have ever had. Gregariousness, Time’s recent study indicated (November 5, 1951), has become a necessity. “They are parts of groups,” one girl shrewdly appraises her contemporaries. “When they are alone they are bored with themselves.”

While youngsters are not inclined to philosophize, their attitude toward life adds up to a fairly discernible set of values. It could be described as a “practical” relativism. The old absolute moral values are disappearing. There is still black and white, to be sure, but it is no longer determined by fixed precepts; it is determined rather by what the group thinks is black and white — and if someone does things the way his group does, well, who is to censure him for his loyalty?

The colleges furnish documentation of the drift. If recent surveys are any indication (FORTUNE, June, 1949), a startling swing has taken place among students to the twin ideals of group harmony and expertism. “These men,” one of their mentors says in praise, “don’t question the . system. Their main aim is to make it work better-to get in there and lubricate the machinery. They’re not rebels; they’ll be social technicians for a better society.”

The registrar’s records bear him out. Along with a concurrent drift from the humanities, there has been a tremendous increase in specialized courses — and of specialization within specialties. Significantly, the courses that enjoyed the most phenomenal popularity among postwar classes were those connected with personnel work. “I like people ” became a universal cry, and in droves students aiming for business turned thumbs down on the idea of general, executive apprenticeship in favor of personnel work; here, with stop watch and slip stick in hand, they could measure away, safe from the doubts and intangibles of the world without. The picture was a mirage, of course, but it was only by the most strenuous efforts of placement officers and corporation personnel people that students gave it up.

Does entry into business life transform these values? Apparently not. Talk with members of the younger generation of management-and we speak not of the disaffected but of the successful-and one is struck by a curious strain of resignation that often runs through their discussion. Like the heroes of J. P. Marquand’s perceptive novels, they are disturbed by a sense of individual impotence. Dispassionately, they describe themselves primarily as members of their environment-men more acted upon than acting. They are neither angry nor cynical about it; they are caught on a “treadmill” from which they will never escape, perhaps-but the treadmill is pleasant enough, they explain, and in the group role they find the emotional security they want so very badly.

So with their wives (FORTUNE, October and November, 1951). No matter what problem they are discussing — from the possibility of advancement to the style of their living-they instinctively phrase their problems in terms of their relations with the group. The relations, they concede, are not simple-there are the girls, the gang on Ferncrest Road, Charlie’s people at the office, and a host of lesser constellations to conjure with. Tough as the job may be, however, it is a job to which they have dedicated themselves.

The system lovers

Turn to the image of the good life in popular cultures and you find the same phenomenon at work. Slick-magazine fiction tells the story. It has never, of course, exactly called for a rebellion against the status quo, but back in the thirties it did present heroes and heroines who engaged in some kind of mild strife with their  environment, told the boss off, or did something equally contentious. No longer. A FORTUNE analysis of 1935-36 plots and 1950-51 plots indicates that heroes and heroines have been growing remarkably submissive. Not only is the system they abide by-be it an Army camp, a business office, or a small-town environment-shown as more benevolent; in some cases the system itself becomes the deus ex machina that solves the problem.

So in serious fiction. More and more, writers are concerning themselves with the relationship of the individual to the group, and more and more resolving it in favor of the latter. The system — and they don’t mean God or the universe — is eventually revealed to the hero as bigger than any of us, and thus it is not only foolish but wrong for him not to reconcile himself to it. From the extreme of the angry, to-hell-with-the-whole-lousy-setup tracts of the 1930’s we seem to be going whole hog in the opposite direction.

Let us have a look at the current bestseller, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. Since it is about the Navy, the system shown has some aspects peculiar to service life. The basic question posed, however the individual’s place in the system, has great universality, and in an excitingly told tale Wouk sketches one point of view with such striking overtones that the book  could almost go down as a landmark in the shift of American values.

The story tells of the terrible dilemma facing the officers of a mine sweeper; their captain, one Queeg, is a neurotic, cowardly incompetent. A typhoon brings the problem to the breaking point. Through hysteria and cowardice, Queeg is about to sink the ship. In vain, Maryk, the stolid, conventional executive officer, tries to get him to keep the ship headed into the wind. Queeg refuses. In the nick of time, Maryk makes his decision. Under Article 184 of Navy Regulations, he relieves Queeg of his command. The ship is saved.

What is the moral? Maryk, we find, shouldn’t have done it. Says the author’s protagonist, Lieutenant Willy Keith in a letter to his girl (p. 463) : ” … I see that we were in the wrong … The idea is, once you get an incompetent ass of a skipper and it’s a chance of war — there’s nothing to do but serve him as though he were the wisest and the best, cover his mistakes, keep the ship going, and bear up. So I have gone all the way around Robin Hood’s barn to arrive at the old platitudes, which I guess is the process of growing up.”

In other times, perhaps, this definition of maturity might have been regarded as downright parody. Obedience and discipline few could have caviled at. But would they have applauded the counseling of an obedience, so abject, so unquestioning, that we are asked, in effect, not only to put up with the evils of a system but to regard them as a right — to reach out, as Norbert Weiner’s phrase goes, and kiss the whip that lashes us? Would they have joined in censuring an act to which the only logical alternative is the passive sacrifice of several hundred lives? Hardly. The executive officer’s action might well have been seen as an act of great moral courage-and one, furthermore, in true allegiance to the service; it did, after all, save the ship. The other byproduct, the withdrawal of Queeg from line command, might also have been interpreted as something less than a disaster to the system.

Not so A.D. 1952. The moral, to judge from what critics and readers have been saying about it, has struck exactly the right chord. The exec, as the dust jacket has it, was merely a well-meaning man “beyond his depth,” and more to be pitied than censured. It is not for the individual to question the competence of the Queegs a system may contain. Queeg was a teacher. Queegs are necessary. We needed Queegs to win the war. So goes the assent. “It is about time that more books of this sort were written,” says J. P. Marquand. “The lesson the newcomer must learn is in many ways the antithesis of democracy. It is essentially a final acceptance of the doctrine that full and unquestioning obedience must be accorded a superior officer, no matter how personally odious or stupid this individual may be — and that without this individual surrender we can never win a war.”

Love that system.

The permissive way

What makes this wave of the present particularly unsettling is the surprising fact that it is in rhythm with one of the dominant currents in contemporary American academic thought. It would be a mistake, of course, to treat the connection as cause and effect; groupthink’s roots go too deep to be so summarily explained. But it would be just as much of an error to dismiss the academic underpinnings, as the layman is so tempted to do, as mere ivory tower mumbo jumbo. The ideology of groupthink is often incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but it is of great power nonetheless. Translated by its disciples in hundreds of lecture halls and papers, and by their disciples in turn, it has given a purpose and direction to the groupthink movement that it would otherwise lack.

The movement, in a sense, is an offshoot of the great academic revolt at the turn of the century against formalism. To Young Turks of the day the individualistic tradition of American thought needed redefinition. Too much attention, they felt, had been concentrated on the lone individual; as a consequence, the rigid values built up for his protection were inapplicable to the great social upheavals that were taking place. What was needed was  a social view of man — man as a unit of the group — and a willingness to adapt society to his needs.

Most of the credit generally goes to John Dewey, who, with William Kilpatrick, gave “progressive” education its impetus. But there were many others — Veblen in economics, for example, and Roscoe Pound in the law (“The law is social engineering”). Like a fresh breeze, through almost every field of American thought, the new concepts swept, as converts enthusiastically fell to whacking away at the restrictions of the old absolutes. Social Man was coming of age.

When the cultural anthropologists got to work on him, his final link to the old moral absolutes was severed. From their comparisons of primitive cultures, and, later, our own, many anthropologists came to the view that the ethics of a people are relative. By this they do not mean that ethics are unimportant, but rather that they are not to be judged by any abstract conceptions of “right” or “wrong.” For if we realize that other cultures and ethics are “equally valid,” to use Ruth Benedict’s phrase, then we will be jogged into giving up all the more readily our outworn traditions and our illusions of individual autonomy. “It is not any particular set of values,” another anthropologist explains, “but a way of looking at them that is important.”

A half-century has gone by and the relativistic, social view of man idea is still gaining. The appetite for cultural anthropology, for example, has been growing at such a rate that Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, first published in 1931, has reached, after a phenomenal newsstand sale, the No. 1 best-seller spot in the Mentor paper-book series.

In several essentials, however, the nature of the movement against formalism has changed drastically. What started as a healthy revolt against dogmatism has produced an offshoot that has succeeded in becoming the new dogmatism itself. And since, like all dogmatisms, it promises respite from uncertainty, a society still shell-shocked by the upheavals of the twentieth century hasn’t bothered yet to question its effects too closely. To be sure, those of the groupthink leaning customarily speak of themselves as rebels fighting an uphill battle against the enemy (“medievalists,” “academicians,” “absolutists”) but the dog they are kicking is practically dead. They won that battle long ago.

Certainly so in one sector of education. Thanks to a strenuous academic controversy, the momentum of the militantly “progressive” brand was slowed down some time back. Groupthink, however, cannot be contained by a label, and to a formidable body of educators the basic ideal of adjustment to group values is so taken for granted that the only remaining job would appear to be working up better ways of bringing it about. “The American educator,” writes one of them, Professor Stewart Cole, “[must] treat pupils as persons-in-groups-in-American-culture at every stage of their social learning.” To do this the teacher should borrow from such disciplines as anthropology, the social sciences, psychology, and group dynamics. “The social interactions” of teachers and pupils should be “the primary channel of learning the good life for America.”*

*Educators of this bent cannot be accused of swimming against the current. As a recent Elmo Roper poll indicates, most Americans now feel the second most important reason for sending children to high school is “to teach them to get along better with other people.” (No.1: to get them ready for a job.)

In this free, permissive atmosphere, the idea that the individual should be regarded as personally accountable for the way he behaves is, of course, old hat. And in the popular view as well. “If your young son sticks his tongue out at you and calls you a nasty old stinkpot,” an article in American Magazine good-humoredly, but approvingly, counsels, “just ignore the insult and rejoice secretly that you have such a fine normal child. He is simply channeling his aggressive, aggrieved feelings harmlessly by verbal projection.”

Where “social interaction” is the watchword, the attitude conditioning is left, in large part, to the child’s peers. Even more than their elders, they are quick to reward deviance with hefty interaction; and thus in the natural distaste of the crowd for the individualist we now have a social tool. And this, the child learns from the books written for him, is as it should be. In these tales of fire engines and trains, as David Riesman has documented in his disturbing study, The Lonely Crowd, the neophyte. groupthinker is taught that one wins by being directed by others — and that the most important thing in the world is to be a team player.

To further ensure that the child need never be a person-not-in-groups, the necessity for little groupthinkers to think as individuals all by themselves may soon be obviated altogether. Individual homework is now to be eliminated. Writes Amy Selwyn in the Reader’s Digest,“Now authorities generally agree that children learn best if they do their learning in groups and talk out loud about lessons as they work.

‘No homework’ spokesmen also say if children were not required to spend their leisure studying they would not develop the resentment against study which often kills all incentive to learn anything . . .”

Lest the layman presume to question the drift, groupthinkers explain that their work is rooted in the Scientific Method, and that now being a holy phrase, it is made plain that the debate is closed to outsiders — if indeed any grounds for debate exist at all.* “Because this new ‘doctrine’ has for its base objective findings in anthropology, social psychology, mental hygiene, and scientific child study,” Professor Alain Locke of Howard University says, “there is an authoritative consensus back of these newer educational procedures that few would care to challenge.

*”I should like to see teachers and professors as sure of themselves, as confident in their training and experience, as surgeons are, and as impatient of lay advice”-Margaret B. Pickel, Dean of Women, Columbia University; New York Times Magazine, June 3, 1951.

On the brink of nonsense

He is right. Many educators have seriously questioned the excesses of educational groupthink, but a large proportion of them are curiously loath to do it out loud right now. Criticism of the misapplications of science, they know, will be quickly seized as an attack on science itself. To muddy matters even more, those of the extremist fringe (notably Allen Zoll) have succeeded in putting something of the kiss of death on public discussion by their attacks on “progressive” education. They are really attacking something else, of course; their reasoning is erroneous and their motives suspect. Nevertheless, many people who have a respectable argument to make hesitate for fear they will lose their standing as liberals. The debate, however, cannot long be deferred — certainly so when it can be said, with some justification, that the best friend progressive education has today is Allen Zoll.

There are some signs that the wider implications of the groupthink movement may at last provoke a counterrevolution. Significantly, some of the most astringent critiques of groupthink are coming from the ranks of the sociologists (cf. “The Image of Man in the Social Sciences”Reinhard Bendix in Commentary,February, 1951). In its application to the law, Roscoe Pound himself has been led to protest the degree to which the social-utility concept has supplanted firm values. Similarly, in England — which suffers groupthink too –educator Sir Walter Moberly has been stirring the universities to a reexaminationof the British variant.

But the best hope may well lie in the ambitions of the groupthinkers themselves. They stand poised, finally, on the threshold of pure nonsense. For a long time they have been growing uncomfortable over their apparent denial of ethical relevance. As the anthropologists themselves point out, man does need a firm sense of right and wrong, and an excessively relative view destroys the old firmness.

This does not mean, however, that the groupthinkers are chastened. Quite the contrary. They now propose to cure this pitfall’ of scientism with more scientism. Ethics are to be made “a matter of scientific investigation.” To some, this merely means an objective study of ethics — certainly a proper enough task. To the groupthinker, however, it means nothing less than a theoretical apparatus for the scientific determination of what is “good” or “bad.” And thus “to the innermost citadel of dogmatic thinking, the realm of values,” they hopefully turn. “The conquest of the field of values,” as one sounds the call, “would be almost the concluding triumph.” He couldn’t be more correct.

Ethics without tears

Why should so despairing an ideology be so popularly contagious? In a society where the old family and community ties that so long cemented it have broken down, the impulse for association is an instinctive and healthy response. But a sense of “belonging,” a sense of meaningful association with others, has never required that one sacrifice his individuality as part of the bargain. Why, then, do so many rush to embrace a philosophy that tells them it is necessary? Why, like the moth, do we fly to the one thing that will consume us? Why, in a country with the sort of healthy political and economic base that has historically nourished individualism, are we so pathetically eager to join up in flatulent brotherhood?

To explain this impulse is to explain our blind faith in scientism as well. For their appeal is common, and many as the variations may be, they come back, eventually, to one simple, compelling theme.

They offer us freedom from moral choice.

Through the deification of group harmony, buck-passing a moral decision becomes itself a moral act; the system-as The Caine Mutiny advocates-attends to these things so much better than the individual, and he might just as well relax and enjoy it.

And there is freedom in another sense as well. Moral dilemmas exist because there is uncertainty. If we can now abstract a few parts from the whole of human nature and by analysis predict  objectively what will make for group harmony, the intangibles that make individual decisions so poignant may be obviated altogether. Like a general who is blessed with perfect intelligence of the enemy, we will have only one valid course of action before us. We will have finally latched on to certainty.

Why participate?

Once this denial of moral relevance is made, folly must be the consequence. For groupthinkers go on to assure themselves that in groupthink itself one finds moral fulfillment. It is not put this crudely, of course; by what has now become a ritualistic explanation, our eyes are directed upward to the goal of harmony, group integration, dynamic equilibrium; upward to a golden mean in which everyone will finally attain the blessed state of-grace? No, the state of “participation.”

But participation for what? As a fundamental of the democratic process, as a means of self-expression and development, participation is abundantly desirable. In this sense, FORTUNE has argued strongly for participation; it has reported its application to the problems of management and will continue to. But the word, like its blood brothers “communication” and “adjust,” is assuming a sort of end-all quality. So let us put the question: Why participate?

In the litany of groupthink the answers describe a complete circle. One participates for the end of “social integration,” for “community-centered cohesion,” for better “interpersonal relations,” for “group harmony,” for the reduction of “social tensions,” for adjustment to the environment. One participates, in other words, that he may participate. And so the end is really only a means after all. Good means, yes, but as an encompassing philosophy, somewhat less than complete.

Even as a means, participation can be a tricky concept. It is easily confused with getting a number of people to do what one did before. And in this aspect, unfortunately, it provides the resolutely pedestrian with a way of cutting down to size their up-and-coming brethren. Similarly it offers the faint of heart an alibi for ducking responsibility-if a broth is to be spoiled, it’s convenient to have too many cooks participate.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of groupthink is the success with which its double-talk has used the old concepts of individualism to justify their opposite. By letting others decide, one decides. By submitting oneself to the group, one becomes an individual. “It is precisely this gradual change in our mental horizon-new assumptions and hypotheses taken as factual description  — that is sinister,” says Lincoln Reis, professor of philosophy at Bard College. “So that while we are presented with a logical horror, we find it established and accepted widely as a fact. Nowhere vulnerable to intelligence, it is as impervious as a nightmare.”

It is impervious because the ideal of unity it holds out obscures for us some disagreeable facts of life — and the necessity for facing them on moral grounds. “Communication” is a term in point. As used in its cult sense, it implies the facile premise that the conflicts that plague us are due simply to “blocks” in the communication flow, and that if we get the technical hang of it, all will be well. Up to a point this is true. But people do not always argue because they misunderstand one another; they argue because they hold different goals. These will always be a matter of debate, and attempts to evade. it through “nonpartisan” communication or “education” programs simply beg the question.

Unity — or monotony? 

“Unity” is a double-edged sword. As our young corporation wife is witness, group harmony is not an unmixed blessing; conversely, neither are frustrations and tensions necessarily bad. They can be fruitful; indeed, progress is often dependent on producing rather than mitigating them. In large part, also, they stem from the scores of conflicting loyalties and allegiances we enjoy in a fluid society. Unless we forswear . these in complete fealty to one embracing organization, there is no easy way to escape the moral decisions they force upon us. Nor should there be. The danger, as Clark Kerr points out, “is not that loyalties are divided today, but that they may beco. me undivided tomorrow.”

It is precisely this smothering of the individual that the drift to groupthink seems to be making more and more imminent. Few groupthinkers, to be sure, believe themselves against the individual. But in looking so intently at man as a member of the group, they have made man seem important in this role only. There is the frequent explanation, of course, that only by group participation is the individual’s potential realized. But this is only a half-truth. Individual excellence must involve something more than a respect for the group and a skill in working with it. “The sphere of individual action,” writes Bertrand Russell, “is not to be regarded as ethically inferior to that of social duty. On the contrary, some of the best of human activities are, at least in feeling, rather personal than social. . . Prophets, mystics, poets, scientific discoverers, are men whose lives are dominated by a vision. ..It . . .is such men who put into the world the things that we most value.”

Few of us are potential geniuses, but the constant admonition to harmonize and integrate affects us nonetheless. Each day we are faced with a multitude of decisions. Should we trust our own judgment? Or does the group’s view have an inherent rightness we cannot match?

The new values would incline us to the easy harmony of the group view, for they would have us suppose that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; that the system has a wisdom beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. But this is not necessarily so. Man can be greater than the group, and his lone imagination worth a thousand graphs.

He is not often a creator, but even as spectator as “the common man,” he can rise in way his past performance would not predict. To aim at his common denominators in the name of ultimate democracy is to despise him, to perpetuate his mediocrities, and to conceive him incapable of responding to anything better than the echo of his prejudices. The “equilibrium” that is the compact to be made with this boor is inevitably static, and the trouble is not solved by sticking the adjective dynamic in front of it.

Has the individual reached a low enough estate for us to become concerned? When the nation’s best-selling novel advocates his abject submission without raising eyebrows; when some corporations make it policy not to hire honor graduates for fear they might not be good mixers; when it is seriously stated that “natural leaders” can be made obsolete, the time has come at least to think about the matter. For if the drift continues, man may soon case to fret over such things at all. He will finally have engineered for himself that equilibrious society. Gelded into harmonious integration, he will be free from tensions and frustrations, content in the certainties of his special function, no longer tantalized by the sense of infinity. He will at last have become a complete bore.

The answer is not a return to a “rugged individualism” that never was. Nor is it a slackened interest in social science and “human relations.” We need, certainly, to fin ways of making this bewildering society of ours run more smoothly and we need all the illumination science can give us to do it. But we need something more. Lest man become an ethical eunuch, his autonomy sacrificed for the harmony of the group, a new respect for the individual must be kindled. A revival of the humanities, perhaps, a conscious, deliberate effort by the corporation not only to accommodate dissent but to encourage it — possible approaches to a problem so fundamental cannot easily be spelled out.

Only individuals can do it.