Case Study: Role of Groupthink during the History of Pearl Harbor

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Groupthink has become more dangerous today than ever before. With the emerging social media platforms, mob mentality has brought outrage daily. Groupthink and similarly mob mentality are not new concepts. The term groupthink was first used by William H. Whyte in an article in Fortune magazine in 1952 but it was Irving Janus in the 1970s who conducted the first research to aid in exposing groupthink.

What is groupthink? “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon whereby pressure within a group to agreed results in failures to think critically about an issue, situation or decision” (, 2019). Groupthink is not associated with just one group but can span across many different types of groups. A well-known example of groupthink and one that I had never read about before was one that comes from our history, the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

On December 7th, 1941 Pearl Harbor, a US naval base in Honolulu, Hawaii, was attacked by the Japanese Navy. Sources from the time period of the attack show:

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, internal Japanese messages had been intercepted by US Intelligence and it was discovered that they were preparing for an attack in the Pacific. As a result of this, Washington sent a warning to the officers stationed at Pearl Harbor. (Hartmann, Smith, and Smith, 2019)

Circumstances of groupthink began with officers stationed in Pearl Harbor and their assumption that Japan was taking steps to prepare for unforeseen situations that would compromise its foreign stationed assets. Groupthink in parallel began to unfold with discussions commenced by the Army and Navy resulting in a unanimous opinion not to adhere to the warnings from Washington. An example of the rationale at this time; “Even if the Japanese were foolhardy to send their carriers to attack us [the United States], we could certainly detect and destroy them in plenty of time” (Janis, 1982).

With Janis’ eight symptoms of groupthink applied, two of the symptoms present themselves during the run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first that comes to mind is part of the type one overestimation of the group, the symptom, illusion of vulnerability. Janis explains groups may think they are invulnerable during their decision-making process and in this case, led to inaction to the warnings coming from Washington.

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The second symptom of Janis’ that presented itself was part of type two closed-mindedness which is referred to as collective rationalizations. Collective rationalization shows a tendency of group members to rationalize their group decisions and stereotype those who are not part of the group (Hartmann, Smith and Smith, 2019). Referencing rationale at the time, officers and our military branches ignored the warnings from Washington, believing that Japan would not even think of attacking the US.

Unfortunately, the ramifications of the groupthink that took place during the lead up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor left the US vulnerable and unprepared for what was to come. The US’s failure to adhere to Washington's warning of Japan's attack brought death to many service members and civilians. Records from the bombing of Pearl Harbor show:

The total number of military personnel killed was 2,335, including 2,008 navy personnel, 109 marines, and 218 army. Added to this were 68 civilians, making the total 2403 people dead. 1,177 were from the USS Arizona. The number of wounded came to 1,143 with 710 navy, 69 marines, and 364 army, as well as 103 civilians. Total Japanese personnel losses were 55 men. (, 2019)

Pearl Harbor is a prime example of how groupthink can become very dangerous. Although groupthink can produce acceptable outcomes, it is important and necessary, to understands the risks.

In hindsight, the Pearl Harbor attack might have been prevented if groupthink had been suppressed. Actions that may have helped prevent groupthink from occurring would have been to have qualified outside experts to challenge the military officers and government personal. This would give a different perspective rather than rely on the optimistic presumptions of a Japanese attack and falling into the illusion of invulnerability. Even if we were able to suppress groupthink during the Pearl Harbor runup there would be no guarantee that the attack would have had an alternate outcome but there is a definite possibility that lives could have been saved. Adhering to the Washington warnings and the officers taking it seriously may have given the US enough time to prepare.

As outlined the Pearl Harbor attack was a great example of groupthink in our history and the ramifications that it may bring. Janis’s breakdown of symptoms associated with groupthink is a good starting point on building a foundation of awareness in order to improve any decision-making process. With mob mentality and groupthink becoming more dangerous today modifying and improving your ability to think critically about a decision or situation will only help.

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Case Study: Role of Groupthink during the History of Pearl Harbor. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from
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