“Groupthink” appeared a lot in the coverage of the recent congressional commission reports. I hadn’t heard that term for 20 years; which sent me off to see from whence it came. Irving Janis’s work on fiascos and decision making apparently. Why did it fall out of common usage? Why’s it making a return appearance?

My insta-theory for it’s disappearance is that Americans don’t like to admit that groups have any control over our behavior and we particularly don’t like to admit that this control might be unconscious and unspoken. For example, if you suggest that people are sometimes manipulated by cults most people will argue either that it was the controlling abusive influence of the cult leaders or that the victims were weak and/or willing.

Janis tries to avoid studying the fiascos that come out of totalitarian or other highly controlled groups. No surprise when such groups fall victim to narrow minded problem solving, blind spots, and fiascos. Janis is looking at the much more interesting cases. Group of well meaning highly capable people that fall into highly controlling modalities of behavior patterns. How’s that happen? Collective behavior.

It is amusing to contrast this with the work on how complex behavior emerges from the combination of simple bits and pieces. The behavior piles of sand, or groups of insects, or simplistic electrical networks. These days we have dozens of examples of systems where seemingly globally coordinated behavior emerges from surprisingly primitive individual players. For example: that a field of fireflies can synch their flashes with only a few neurons. An entire national electric grid can collapse given the failure of a handful of elements.

It’s not a pretty thought that groups of highly capable people might fail in similar ways. So people decline to embrace the idea that such modalities might arise in human groups. It’s not a very empowering idea. If nobody is conscious of it then who do we blame?

This kind of model is very popular in one scenario though. After the fiasco, when the group writes the report that explains what went wrong. This framework is just what the Doctor ordered!  Since it offers the people writing the report a chance to avoid blaming anybody.

I’m not surprised that the Iraq commission used this diagnosis.

Consider Janis’s model of the antecedents of group think.

  • Illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all the members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks;
  • collective efforts to rationalize in order to discount warnings which might lead the members to reconsider their assumptions before they recommit themselves to their past policy decisions;
  • an unquestioned belief in the the group’s inherent morality, inclining the members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions;
  • sterotyped views of enemy leaders as too evil to warrant genuine attempts to negotiate, or as too weak and stupid to counter whatever risky attempts are make to defeat their purposes.
  • direct pressure on any member who expresses strong arguments against any of the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, making clear that this type of dissent is contrary to what is expected of loyal members;
  • self-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus, reflecting each member’s inclination to minimize to himself the importance of his doubts and counter arguments;
  • a shared illusion of unanimity concerning judgments conforming to the majority view (partly resulting from self-censorship of deviations augmented by the false assumption that silence means consent);
  • the emergence of self-appointed mindguards – members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions.

Fits the Iraq fiasco like a glove doesn’t it!

Research like this can be empowering. Once you identify the ailment then you can begin to look for symptoms, treatments, cures.

Laying the blame at the feet of groupthink just doesn’t cut it. Sure, groupthink is a failure mode of decision making groups. There are plenty of such failure modes! A whole laundry list in fact. For example overreacting to one constraint in the problem space and thus becoming blind to all the other constraints.

Competent people know how to reduce the severity of these failure modes. That’s what you hope to get when you put “proven executives” in charge. While you can’t expect each and every person in a group to have this kind of expert knowledge – the knowledge of how to navigate around all the failure modes of group problem solving – is it too much to ask of the groups assembled to tackle the top few problems facing the nation?

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