Wednesday, June 3, 2009


At the risk of boring my readers (if I have any), today I'll re-emphasize and add a bit to the “Charisma” article from yesterday. This time I'll talk particularly about groupthink. Some of this will be repetition but, at least in my opinion, the problem of charisma and group think is big enough to justify repitition.

The causes of groupthink are many and diverse. The results, unfortunately, are more uniform - and nearly all bad. Groupthink is decision-making poison. It excludes consideration of useful information and analysis required for making good decisions. This can lead to disaster. For example one study showed that in 80% of helicopter accidents, someone aboard saw a problem but thought it wasn't his place to say anything about it!*

Two events from the Kennedy administration in the U.S. provide an excellent study of both the causes of groupthink and how to avoid it.** The Bay of Pigs invasion was largely the result of groupthink and turned into one of the worst foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. On the other hand, the Cuban missile crisis was treated much better, with specific attention to avoidance of groupthink. As a result, the missile crisis was settled with no shots fired.

Groupthink appeared in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in the following manners:

1. The president was so charismatic that his staff wanted to follow him. Staff members did not feel free to express opinions perceived as contrary to what Kennedy wanted. Of course they weren't always sure exactly what he wanted so at times they were really supporting their own best guesses about what he wanted.

2. Outside experts were excluded, ostensibly to protect secrecy (which was already compromised). No independent viewpoints sought or allowed. Intelligence contradicting the beliefs on which the decisions were based was available, but that information never made it to the decision-makers.

3. Limited purviews: Schlesinger, for example, felt that as an academic he would be presumptuous to bring up his concerns.

4. Illusion of invulnerability. The feeling was, "We are smart and we are automatically moral. Therefore we will succeed."

5. Illusion of unanimity. "Let's all support the president!" Staff members regarded it as important to be unanimous, to the point that they supressed their thoughts to achieve that unanimity.

6. Self-appointed mindguards. For example, Robert Kennedy told Schlesinger that everyone should get behind the president.

All that together added up to an apparently unanimous decision to carry out an action that failed miserably. And contrary to the working assumption, there was no way to blame it on renegade Cuban exiles, the whole world knew that the U.S. was behind the invasion.

It is impossible to know what would have happened had the administration sought and paid attention to other information or analysis, but it is highly probable that decision-makers would have seen the potential problems and called off the invasion.
The Bay of Pigs provided a painful lesson, but thankfully Kennedy and his staff members learned that lesson well. When the Cuban missile crisis arose, they took deliberate action to avoid groupthink.

Among the ways they did this were:

1. Kennedy deliberately absented himself from many meetings in order to avoid exerting undue influence over discussions.

2. Committee members themselves resisted pressure for unanimity and freely expressed their disagreements. Rules of protocol were suspended to allow frank and free-wheeling discussion.

3. Group member roles were defined to include being skeptical "generalists," charged with examining the problem as a whole. Purviews were not limited.

4. Subgroups examined the issues and were later cross-examined by other groups.

5. No opinion was regarded as gospel, either a group or an individual opinion. Nor was any opinion automatically dismissed.

6. Decision makers deliberately sought and considered all pertinent information, even information that went contrary to their preferred course of action.

7. The entire attitude was one of vigilant appraisal rather than groupthink.
The decision was still difficult and the outcome uncertain. In fact, Kennedy said that the people whose ideas were rejected were the lucky ones because they would be able to say, "I told you so." Thankfully that was not the case, the action taken (a blockade) solved the problem.

We can all learn from both the mistakes in the Bay of Pigs decision and the much better way the Kennedy administration handled the missile crisis. Groupthink seems to be a human tendency but we can fight it and win that fight. It is worth the effort, getting all reasonable information and using it will make for better decisions which in turn will make for better lives. We can ask ourselves if we are just following the crowd or if we have really properly considered major decisions in our lives.

*Charley Shimanski, "Risks in Mountain Rescue Operations: Part 3", _Advanced Rescue Technology_, April/May 2003, p47

**These two events and how the decisions were made are well described in Irving Janis's book, _Victims of Groupthink_.

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