The following entry is based off a milestone article by Irving Janis in the Psychology Today magazine, published in Nov. 1971 on Groupthink.
As I started to read this article by Irving Janis (no, I am not an avid reader of psychological diatribes… this was a reading for my MBA!), I thought it would be useful to share the author’s discussion points with our readers. I found remarkable truth in some of what is described in this article as it relates to what happens often times in our social groups, work groups, etc. and in the grander picture, what is happening in our nation.
I think most of us are already aware of the tunnel-vision that the Bush Administration has always had. I am sure many wonder how this administration manages to make the shallow decisions that they have been making thus far, even though there are (mostly) smart people within the administration ranks. I believe this article will give you a deeper insight (as it gave me) as to the inner workings of a strongly cohesive group and the groupthink that it may lead to. Of course when the stakes get higher and higher, and reach the level of the Executive branch of our country, then it is in our interest to understand groupthink dynamics, so we can try to deconstruct what is going on today. Also, I hope by understanding this concept, we can avoid it within the ranks of work, social and religious groups.
The author asserts that stupidity could not be the explanation for what really was a stupid adventure as in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Rather, the group that made this decision included some of the smartest and intellectual talent in American government’s history: McNamara, Robert Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, and others. Similarly, we can say that it is not stupidity that explains what the Bush Administration has been doing.
Instead, the author argues that the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs and other similar fiascoes are committed by victims of “groupthink”. As you read the following, your mind will keep flashing back to the Bush gang’s doings.
One of the most common norms of this groupthink is “remaining loyal… by sticking with the policies to which the group has already committed itself, even when these policies are obviously working out badly and have unintended consequences that disturb the conscience of each member.”
The symptoms of groupthink start to appear when members of a group start adopting a compromising, “soft-line” method of criticism, in order to sound amiable and “groupy”, and as not to sound too confrontational with your colleagues or the leaders. In other words, don’t become the “party spoiler”. Can anyone say Colin Powell??
Janis then jumps into an important consequence of this groupthink. He asserts that “paradoxically, soft-headed groups are often hard-hearted when it comes to dealing with outgroups or enemies. They find it relatively easy to resort to dehumanizing solutions—they will readily authorizing bombing attacks and kill large number of civilians in the name of the noble cause…”. Such groups are inclined not to raise questions regarding ethical issues because if they do so then they that would make it possible that “this fine group of ours, with its humanitarianism and its high-minded principles, might be capable of adopting a course of action that is inhumane and immoral”, which they do not find to be a possibility. Think now about George Bush and his “moral” reasons to attack Iraq or to engage in privacy-violations of American citizens. Whenever someone has asked his administration (the “ingroup”) whether they have made any mistakes, the answer has almost always been in the negative or similar. A “yes” would compromise groupthink decisions.
Groupthink tends to increase as the group becomes more and more cohesive. The author contends that it is not the danger of external threats that causes the group to engage in groupthink but rather it is the result of the “non-deliberate suppression of critical thoughts as a result of internalization of the group’s norms”.
The author states that group decisions are not all bad, and that groupthink does not occur in every cohesive group. Some aspects of groupthink are indeed positive, and facilitate the decision-making process; however, the groupthink mentality should not be so dominant as to override all individual criticism. Janis suggests that if groupthink dominates, then the benefits of a group decisions are lost because of the significant psychological pressures that arise. When this group has the same set of values and faces the same crisis situation, then everyone is put under great stress. Janis states that the main principle of groupthink, in the spirit of Parkinson’s Law is:
“They more amiability and spirit de corps there is among the groups of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups”.
Think Abu Ghurayb…
“Most or all the members of the ingroup share an illusion of invulnerability that provides for them some degree of reassurance about obvious dangers and leads them to become overoptimistic and willing to take extraordinary risks. It also causes them to fail to respond to clear warnings of danger”. One of the main complaints about George Bush is his arrogance and his sense of invincibility.
The author quotes some examples of the groupthink catastrophes: the Bay of Pigs invasion as already mentioned, where somehow the ingroup believed that they could keep the whole thing a secret. Even when the news started leaking, they still held on.
The second example stated was that of the Vietnam War, where Lyndon Johnson kept escalating the war. Here the author quotes another important statement in light of current events. Bill Moyers commented after he resigned,
“There was a belief that if we indicated a willingness to sue our power, they [the North Vietnamese] would get the message and back away from an all-out confrontation… There was a confidence—it was never bragged about, it was just there—that when the chips were really down, the other people would fold”.
Unfortunately, in Bush’s case, it gets worse. Not only is he over-confident, he is also not afraid about bragging about it.
“As we see, victims of groupthink ignore warnings; they also collectively construct rationalizations in order to discount warnings and other forms of negative feedback that, taken seriously, might lead to the group members to reconsider their assumptions…”
Here again, we see groupthink in the events that led to the Iraq war and the current “troop surge policy”. Whenever people talked about the complications of invading Iraq, the sectarianism, and all the other reasonable things to talk about when invading a whole country (hello??), Bush & Co. would retort to the non-existent WMDs or to the black and white world model, “either you are with Saddam or you are with us”. The rationale was so firmly entrenched in the group of neocons around Bush that even reasonable people like Powell were caught up in the wave of groupthink constructed by Cheney, Wolfowitz, etc., that Powell ultimately ended up being part of the propaganda machine.
Victims of groupthink feel unequivocally that their group members are inherently on the moral side of the issue. This allows them to mentally block out ethical or moral consequences of their decision. In this issue, the author highlights decision-making by Lyndon Johnson’s group in Vietnam. The bombing targets were based on four factors: military advantage, risk to pilots, danger of forcing other countries into the fighting, and danger of heavy civilian casualties. By going over these factors in a purely standardized procedure, if three of the four factors were met, while heavy casualties happened, the President would count that as 75% successful. But, by having the casualties as part of the equation, this ingroup would at least feel morally justified!
Again, we can see the morality card consistently being played by Bush & team in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both these have always been represented as “moral” wars against “evil”. And the fact that hundreds of thousands of civilians have died is still justified by the notion that “at least the evil dictator Saddamenstein, and the evil Taliban regime is gone”
Victims of groupthink often engage in creating stereotypes of the “enemies”. The “enemy” is so evil that we cannot justify negotiating with them. “We do not negotiate with terrorists”. We all remember the dehumanization campaign of Taliban (yes, they had issues, but they were made to be appear less than human!), and then the dehumanization campaign of Saddam. The construction of the image of Saddam as the modern-day Hitler was part and parcel of selling the Iraqi war, and cannot be forgotten.
Victims of groupthink apply direct and significant pressure on any individual that is not complying with the groupthink. The author mentions Bill Moyers as one of the pressurized-into-compliance dissenter. In our time, Colin Powell comes instantly to mind.
Victims of groupthink avoid dissensions from the “agreed-upon” path forward. They remain silent even if they have some serious misgiving. The author again mentions some key “silent dissenters” in Lyndon Johnson’s ingroup. And we know now that there have been a few folks in the Bush administration who have come out blazing once they left the ingroup, but were relatively quiet and benign when they were within the ingroup.
Victims of groupthink build an illusion around themselves that everyone in the group is in line with the “official” decision out of the group. So, silence from victims of self-censorship is assumed, not as doubt, but as consent to the groupthink decisions.
“Victims of groupthink sometimes appoint themselves as mindguards to protect the leader and fellow members from adverse information that might break the complacency they shared about the effectiveness and morality of past decisions”
This statement represents a striking relevance to the time just before the Iraqi invasion. The President himself stated that he did not watch the news and got all the information from his inner circle (i.e. his ingroup). And we can be quite certain that this ingroup consisting of the people who led the nation into war (Cheney and the other neocons) were careful as mindguards in preventing information from reaching the President that may have broken the complacency of the decision. It may not be completely out of the realm of imagination that Bush continues to get all information from the Rices, the Cheneys and other ingroup victims.
When a group engages in groupthink, the consequences can be inefficient to disastrous. We know how the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam war and the Iraq war have gone. And we can find evidence of groupthink in all of the decisions that led the nation into these fiascos. The author mentions some consequences of groupthink:
First, not all alternatives are considered and accorded full merit. So the group usually narrows down to only one or two alternatives in order to hasten decision-making. Second, the group fails in reexamining their decision in light of new information that point to significant risks and problems. So, when Bush & Co. were advised of the potential quagmire that they could find themselves in Iraq due to the various sects/ethnicities in Iraq, they were not willing to reexamine the policy to go to war.
Third, the ingroup does not spend enough time discussing gains that they may not have taken into account or ways to decrease the losses that they believed were associated with the alternatives in question. Fourth, members of the ingroup don’t attempt to go to the experts, even in their group, to identify a more precise outcome of the decision. We know now that Bush & Co. obviously did not go to the Middle Eastern experts to identify potential spending and loss of life for the Iraq war.
Fifth, ingroup members focus on the positives that help strengthen their case, and ignore the negatives that do not. And finally, ingroup members often do not have a contingency plan or “exit strategy” for failed decisions.
The author then goes into some other aspects of groupthink, ending in a list of remedies. I find his closing remark telling and it would also mark the closing remark for this article:
“In this era of atomic warheads, urban disorganization and ecocatastrophes, it seems to me [Janis] that policymakers should collaborate with behavioral scientists and give top priority to preventing groupthink and its attendant fiascos”.