What Missionaries Ought to Know about Groupthink

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What Missionaries Ought to know… does not mean that the author sat down and decided what missionaries ought to know, but that missionaries themselves asked about these topics. During the author’s 35 years of college teaching he learned that if one person asks a question, others probably want to know the same thing—and if two people ask, it was certainly a topic that others need to know about. These are things missionaries need to know because several missionaries have asked about each of them at one time or another.

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Suppose this happened to a missionary.  After the fourth meeting about a new project which the long-time field director proposed and strongly supported, Pat was still troubled by misgivings.  When she considered the cost of the project and the condition of the economy, proceeding with the project just did not seem wise. When another first term missionary began to raise questions, a veteran missionary quickly accused her of having too little faith.  Certainly the project would help people, and it could be God’s will, so Pat voted for it along with the others, but she still felt uneasy.

Later, after the project was abandoned and their agency had lost many thousands of dollars, Pat and several of the others who had voted for it talked about how they were like the man who began the tower but could not finish it (Luke 14:28-30).  As they talked, they asked themselves, “How could we all have voted for it?  It is so obvious now that it would not succeed.”  What happened to them was groupthink.

What is groupthink?

Irving Janis, the first person to study it in detail, defined groupthink as the kind of thinking people do when they are committed to a cohesive group and their striving for unanimity overcomes their ability to be realistic about which action to take.  Individual uniqueness, creativity, and independent thinking are left behind in protecting the cohesiveness of the group.  People do not want to appear foolish or to upset the group so they set their doubts aside and make irrational decisions.

Janis studied American foreign policy disasters such as Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961.  Most missionaries today remember the American government’s decision to attack Iraq in 2003 to destroy the weapons of mass destruction although many USA citizens and most of the rest of the world did not think it was wise.  Groupthink is not only something that politicians may do, but also it is something missionaries may do.

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