Group Think

Groupthink in Twelve Angry Men

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Groupthink is defined as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (Janis, 1992). To have a cohesive group, the members usually have to know each other and have experience working together. For example, when President George W. Bush made the decision to invade Iraq, he made that decision with a group of the people around him. According to reports, Bush places great emphasis on loyalty and chooses people to work with him who display it. it’s certainly possible that the decision to invade Iraq was made on the basis of groupthink. The group members supported each other and bolstered each other up. Loyalty and cohesiveness were more important and more valued than critical evaluation was.

In the film Twelve Angry Men, the situation is a little different. The members of the group are on a jury and have never met before — nor will they be likely to meet again afterwards. They have only one task to accomplish, and that is to decide on the guilt or innocence of an 18-year-old boy from the ghetto accused of murder. For the boy, the stakes are high because the law mandates the electric chair if he is found guilty. In the beginning of the deliberations, eleven of the twelve members are already in agreement. They have heard the prosecution’s case and found no fault with it. They believe so strongly that the boy is guilty they feel invulnerable (at least, as long as they stick together, that is, as long as they are cohesive). As a group, they want to hurry up and find him guilty, so they can go home. One of the jury members voices a collective rationalization when he says, “He got a fair trial. He’s lucky to get it.” This is a rationalization for a quickly-made decision.

Group think is strongly in evidence in the beginning of the story because they all agree without even discussing the case. When one person says, “But supposing they’re wrong?” The reaction is shock and incredulity: “What d’you mean, supposing they’re wrong?” There is an illusion of unanimity in the beginning among the eleven people that agree. As one of the jury says, “We all saw what it looks like” (referring to the switch-blade knife), “why do we have to see it again?”

Because the group is in consensus in the beginning (except for one member), some of the jury members can’t accept the obvious lack of unanimity later when it breaks down. One of them says, “The boy is guilty, period. Know what I mean, my friend?” As though he speaks for everyone there. Another one says to a person that changes his vote, “You voted guilty! What side are you on?” In other words, there is pressure to remain loyal, and not to abandon the group by changing one’s mind or changing one’s vote.

In the beginning there is an assumption that the group is inherently moral. It isn’t until later that the morality of some of the jury members comes into question. it’s a shock to find out, for instance, that one of the members will change his vote simply because he wants to go to a ball game. Other moral issues arise as the story progresses.

Racial prejudice and bigotry is a strong factor in another one of the members, an older man who harbors a great many stereotypical beliefs about Puerto Ricans (and perhaps about minorities, in general): “I’ve lived around ’em all my life. They’re born liars. They get drunk…Bang — somebody’s lying in the gutter… I’ve known a couple who were okay, but that’s the exception… They’re no good. There’s not a one of them who is any good…. These people are dangerous.” He makes these statement as though all Puerto Ricans were the same without exception, as tough there were not individuals or differences among them. Another jury member has stereotyped all young people because he is alienated from his son and angry about it. He says things from the beginning like, “It’s these kids, the way they are now days,” again, as though all kids were alike. “I’d slap these tough kids down in a minute,” as though all poor kids were tough. “They let those kids run wild up there,” as though all parents were alike. Another jury member becomes enraged because an immigrant jury member criticizes him: “I’m tellin’ you, they’re all alike [immigrants]. They come here and want to run the whole show.”

Some of the members speak up hardly at all. They censor themselves because of fear that the rest of the group will criticize them or they might say something stupid. For example, the character played by Jack Klugman asks to “pass” at first, rather than explain his reasons for finding the boy guilty. It is not until he is angered later by stereotypical comments about the slums and poor people, that he speaks up and tells the group he grew up poor and “played in backyards filled with garbage.”

Throughout the story, from the moment one person says “not guilty,” there is pressure on dissenters, especially the character who stands alone in the beginning (played by Henry Fonda). The other members say things to him like, “You’re the only one.” “You’re the only one in this room wants to see exhibits all the time.” “There are still eleven of us who think he’s guilty!” And “You do-gooders are all alike.” In a group situation, it takes moral courage to stand up against everybody else and say what you really believe. It is a sign of leadership, though, and the character played by Henry Fonda does appear to be a natural leader.

The presence of self-appointed mind guards are also very vocal in the film These are people who tell others how they should think and what they should think. If others don’t, they criticize them for it and say negative things. For example, one of the jury members changes his vote to “not guilty” in response to critical comments about the old man who claimed he got up out of bed, made it to the door in less than 15 seconds, and saw the boy running away after the murder. Another jury member says to him, “You’re just like everybody else. You think too much — you get mixed up.” How would he know how much another person thinks? And then he labels the person “mixed up,” although that person doesn’t appear to be confused at all. He merely disagrees. This same member says other mind-guard things as well, such as, “Some of you people must be out of your mind.” “I’m sick of facts.” “All these picky little points!” “What do we need to know that for?” “You people are forgetting the important stuff.” “Look, this is absolutely insane. What are you wasting everybody’s time for?” All these comments are the comments of a self-appointed mindguard, telling people what they ought to think.

Eventually, the first “cohesive” group that believed the defendant was guilty of murdering his father breaks down, and a new, stronger group is formed. The angriest and most vocal of the old group now stands alone as the dissenter while the eleven others have reached a new consensus. The character who was alone in the beginning says to him, “Now, you’re the only one.” The new group demands that he give his reasons for believing the boy is guilty. As he goes over all of his old arguments, he comes to realize that they are no longer supportable logically. He’s beaten and surrenders to the consensus of the group.

There are three remedies for Groupthink that can prevent poor decisions from being made. One of these remedies is to break the group into subgroups. The subgroups then work on the same issues and report their findings afterward when the whole group reconvenes. By comparing notes, they reach more balanced conclusions and make wiser decisions. This does not happen in Twelve Angry Men probably because traditionally, juries do not operate that way. Another remedy is to have the leader leave the group periodically so that the rest of the members of the group can feel free to talk about their own ideas without offending the leader. This, too, was absent from the film. But perhaps the most important remedy for Groupthink was clearly portrayed and that was the presence of critical evaluators who point out the errors of key members of the group. Henry Fonda plays this role in the film. He brings up issues that the group hasn’t thought about. For example, he shows them a knife he found in a pawn shop the night before that is exactly like the murder weapon. The prosecuter argued that the knife was unusual, even unique, and couldn’t have belonged to anyone else but the defendant. The jury members listened and accepted what he said. When one person shows the other jury members that the knife is not so unique after all, they begin to realize there might be other things to reasonably doubt in the prosecution’s case as well.

This worked well in the story because the jury foreman didn’t demand loyalty from the other jury members. He didn’t any power over them. They wouldn’t lose their status or their jobs if they displeased him. The jury was only a group for a few hours and their livelihoods did not depend on the decisions they made or the opinions they expressed. Juries are not permanent, even though the decisions they reach could have permanent consequences for the defendant. Their own “fate” is not at stake as it would be if they were members of an advisory council for the president, for example. Who would want to be a dissenter against President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Condaleesa Rice, for example — all of whom are certain that a pre-emptive strike on Iraq is absolutely necessary, no matter what the evidence says? Even when the whole country’s safety is NOT at stake, when the decision is what movie to see or what restaurant to go to, how many people want to go against what everybody else wants?


Janis, I. (1992). Groupthink. In Theories of Human Communication (5th Ed.), Ed. Stephen Littlejohn. California: Wadsworth Publishing.