Groups

Like authorities, groups are a wonderful resource. They can provide support, diverse views, the opportunity to work together on an ethical dilemma, and relief from the sense of isolation. But—also like authorities—certain group processes can work to block sound ethical judgment. We get ourselves into trouble when we allow groups to shield us from ethical struggles and the sense of ethical responsibility.

In a fascinating essay we recommend to all of this book's readers, psychologist Paul Meehl (1977) described "Why I Do Not Attend Case Conferences." He pointed out the "groupthink process" (p. 228), which discourages sound judgment and may be familiar to all of us: "In one respect the clinical case conference is no different from other academic group phenomena such as committee meetings, in that many intelligent, educated, sane, rational persons seem to undergo a kind of intellectual deterioration when they gather around a table in one room" (p. 227).

Psychologist Irving Janis (1972) studied ways in which groupthink clouds our judgment. Janis and Mann (1977, pp. 130-131) identified the eight symptoms of groupthink, adapted below, to emphasize their effects on ethical judgment:

1. An illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks

2. Collective efforts to rationalize in order to discount warnings

3. An unquestioned belief in the group's inherent high ethics, leading members to underestimate their ethical responsibilities or the negative consequences of their behavior

4. Stereotyped views of those who disagree about ethical issues, encouraging group members to disparage the motives, intelligence, heart, or good faith of those who disagree with the group's views

5. Pressure on any group member who dissents or raises serious questions about the group's views or behavior

6. Self-stifling of deviations from the group's approach; an inclination of each member to deny, discount, or minimize doubts or counterarguments

7. The illusion of virtual unanimity, created by self-stifling and assuming that silence means consent

8. Some members taking on the role of "mindguard—members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions" (p. 131)

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