The Salem Witch Trials: Groupthink at its worst

In honor of Halloween and all things occult, I wanted to explore a historical event I was morbidly fascinated with as a child: the Salem Witch Trials. When I was younger, I couldn’t get my hands on enough novels and non-fiction books on the subject. I read The Crucible and watched the movie, and I was also fortunate enough to have relatives who lived in Salem, MA, so I got to visit most years around Halloween. While in Salem, I would walk through the cemeteries where the alleged witches had been laid to rest and read their tombstones. These ancient tombstones actually listed the method used to kill the accused. I remember being completely engrossed in the event the more I learned about it—I couldn’t get past the swiftness of the accusations, the unfairness of the trials, the conformity, and the upturned power hierarchy of the Salem community. I didn’t necessarily think of it in those specific terms at the time, but in retrospect, my nascent social psychological wheels were turning.

What exactly happened during the Salem Witch Trials? What perpetuated the mass hysteria? Why did it take so long to stop?

Lithograph of Salem Witch Trials, 1892, by Joseph Baker

Actually, research on groupthink suggests that what happened in Salem Village* wasn’t all that unusual; terrible, yes, but surprising? Perhaps not. A few factors combined to allow for the perfect storm of the Salem Trials.

Groupthink1 is a way of thinking characterized by an excessive emphasis on group cohesion and solidarity. Often, group harmony is prioritized over making an accurate judgment, allowing for important information to be ignored. Groupthink is most likely to occur when the group is highly cohesive, isolated, stressed, has poor decision-making procedures, and a forceful leader. Nearly all of these factors existed in Salem Village during the winter of 1692, the time leading up to and including the witch trials.

Highly cohesive group and group isolation. The Salem villagers were Puritans, tightly knit together by their religious beliefs, including fear of the Devil’s work. Because of their religious convictions, recent attacks by Native Americans, and tension with the wealthier Salem Town, the Salem villagers were distrustful of outsiders, leaving them to rely primarily on each other for support.

Forceful leader. Reverend Samuel Parris, the first ordained minister of Salem Village, ruled strictly and was known for his greedy nature. Editorial note: he doesn’t seem like the type of person who would allow people to speak their mind.

High stress. The 1692 winter was a particularly harsh one, which strained Salem Village’s resources and increased their reliance on Salem Town. Adding to the strain was a number of displaced people from King William’s War, who landed in Salem Village, and a smallpox epidemic.

Poor decision-making. The trial process, a term I use loosely, allowed testimony about dreams and visions to be included, despite opposition from the respected minister Cotton Mather; likely, his voice just wasn’t loud enough to stop the momentum yet. Female children as young as four years old who were connected to accused older women, like Dorothy Good, daughter of Sarah Good, were questioned and thought to have confessed. These are just a few of the ways in which poor decision-making was employed.

So, the groundwork was there. And when groupthink emerged, it did so violently with all of its accompanying symptoms:

Belief in the moral correctness of the group. Need I remind you that these were deeply religious people? They prayed every day and considered themselves to be the elect. In other words, they believed they had been predestined for heaven, chosen uniquely by the God they believed in. As K. David Goss put it in Daily Life during the Salem Witch Trials, their Puritan faith was all-encompassing. These religious beliefs contributed to a lot of self-censorship and the pressure to conform, particularly among women, who were expected to aspire to the ideal virtuous woman as described in the bible (see Goss’s book for more). This pressure to conform and to limit personal beliefs likely increased significantly once accusations were being made, lest someone turn an accusation on someone who dared to speak her mind.

Considering the ripening groupthink conditions of the stressed and isolated place of Salem Village, the mass hysteria and frenzy of the Salem Witch Trials wasn’t completely unexpected, at least in hindsight. That it can be explained doesn’t detract from the horror, death, and upheaval that occurred. And community members of Salem did eventually put a stop to the madness, perhaps because the stress was unsustainable and damaged the group cohesiveness. The diminished cohesiveness may have allowed an opening for some powerful community members to feel comfortable enough to speak up. A public apology was eventually made in 1697 by Judge Sewall, who had overseen many of the trials, but it was too little, too late. Groupthink had left a permanent mark.

Groupthink can, and does, occur today, too. It can be avoided by having an impartial leader, being willing to seek outside opinions, creating subgroups to make decisions separately, and seeking anonymous opinions.2


*The place where the witch trials occurred was actually Salem Village, present-day Danvers, and was established several miles from Salem Town, now present-day Salem. See http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/Witch.html for more information.

1,2  Janis, I.L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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