Groupthink: A Significant Threat to the Homeland Security of the United States

– Executive Summary –

The groupthink psychological phenomenon widespread throughout the homeland security enterprise is a significant threat to the national security of the United States (U.S.). Nevertheless, the existence of groupthink and its influence on homeland security has not been thoroughly studied or evaluated. To counter the ever-evolving threats to the nation, the homeland security enterprise must employ imagination, innovation, critical thinking, and devil’s advocacy that are the antithesis of groupthink.

This research project asks, “Has groupthink influenced the homeland security enterprise and if so, what are the implications of this phenomenon?” It also identifies the antecedent conditions and symptoms of groupthink in the homeland security enterprise, examines the patterns of evidence indicating the extent to which this psychological phenomenon is occurring, and it analyzes how groupthink is influencing the national security of the United States. This thesis project also offers recommendations on how to mitigate groupthink to homeland security leaders and reformers.


The term groupthink was first used in a 1952 Fortune magazine article by William H. Whyte, Jr. Whyte discussed “rationalized conformity” in government organizations and decision-making groups that he saw as a threat to individuality and innovation. The seminal work on groupthink theory was created in 1972, when psychologist Irving L. Janis published, Victims of Groupthink. This essential work examined historic government policy decisions influenced by groupthink. It further examined decisions that were the antithesis of groupthink, on which leaders took steps to counter this phenomenon.

According to Janis’s theory, groupthink occurs when the members of an in-group prize their membership in this faction more than the quality of the decision or the decision’s consequences. Janis theorized that the in-group frequently sanctions a directive leader’s preconceived agenda, and censors their own doubts, disagreements, or alternative courses of action. Groups that engage in groupthink reject outside opinions, and even in the face of disastrous consequences, they often ardently defend the faulty decisions made by the group.

Janis identified certain antecedent conditions—really, structural faults in an organization—that may lead to groupthink. Such antecedent conditions as insulation of the decision-making in-group, a lack of impartial leadership and established methods and procedures, and the homogeneity of the decision-making in-group, are present in the modern homeland security enterprise.

This theory also identified eight symptoms of groupthink, many of which are also readily apparent in the home security enterprise including the “belief in inherent morality; stereotyped views of out-groups; self-appointed ‘mindguards’; illusion of unanimity; self-censorship; collective rationalization; direct pressure on dissenters; and the illusion of invulnerability.” Janis’s groupthink theory contends, “the more frequently a group displays the symptoms, the worse will be the quality of its decisions.”


The homeland security enterprise displays the symptoms and consequences of groupthink in the poor quality of the decisions made by many of its leadership in-groups and the continuous mismanagement and failures of the organizations. These failures can result in extremely low morale among career employees; the continuous succession of insulated senior leadership incarnations, and the lack of a clearly defined homeland security mission that each succession of leadership redefines.

The homeland security enterprise is vulnerable to groupthink because frequently leadership in-groups share similar backgrounds and belief systems. This homogeneity increases the insulation of leadership and it minimizes the introduction of outside perspectives, dissenting opinions, and alternative viewpoints from being introduced into the decision-making process. Career employees who are subject-matter experts are often viewed by leadership in-groups as inferiors or interchangeables who merely serve the leadership. Moreover, leadership in-groups commonly do not have an interest in actually reforming the status quo unless they are forced to act.

Homeland security leadership in the grips of groupthink endangers the national security of the United States when such officials ignore alternatives to their decisions. “Mindguards” within homeland security aggressively interdict the alternative views of employees who do not engage in the current cycle of groupthink and these employees are often punished, isolated, or deposed by the current leadership and its “prevailing wisdom.”


Furthermore, to promote and manage homeland security effectively and to prevent groupthink, leadership should select the members of decisions-making groups from diverse social, ethnic, economic, political, and occupational backgrounds. Janis’s recommendations for overcoming groupthink affirm that each group member has the obligation to act as a critical evaluator or devil’s advocate that airs objections and doubts. Leaders should accept criticism and discourage the members from soft-pedaling their disagreements; each group member should seek input from “trusted associates” and outside “experts” to challenge the views of the core members. Members should be encouraged by leadership to engage in constructive criticism, deductive reasoning, and devil’s advocacy when debating and questioning policies and decisions made by the group.

Leaders can mitigate groupthink on a case-by-case basis by fostering an organizational culture that encourages employees to play the vital role of devil’s advocate, offering their varied perspectives pertaining to agency policies, programs, and commonly held assumptions. Leaders who wish to diminish groupthink should employ Janis’s framework and remedies, and promote critical thinking, innovation, and imagination to strengthen national security.

Furthermore, history has demonstrated that significant change in the U.S. government typically occurs only following a tremendous crisis. Reform in homeland security occurred subsequent to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, the attacks on September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina. These tragic incidents prompted homeland security reformers to enact change in the security posture of the nation. Reformers must be ready for the period immediately following the next crisis to implement Janis’s framework to mitigate the internal threat of groupthink that has made much of the homeland security enterprise infective.

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