Groupthink Viewed as Culprit in Move to War

Times Staff Writer

The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. The escalation of the Vietnam War. The go-ahead for launching the space shuttle Challenger.

“Groupthink,” an insular style of policy-making, has been identified as a chief culprit in all. And to these, the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday added the process leading to the decision to attack Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

Irving Janis, a Yale psychologist, coined the term in 1972 to describe a decision-making process in which officials are so wedded to the same assumptions and beliefs that they ignore, discount or even ridicule information to the contrary. When members of a cohesive, homogeneous group value unanimity and agreement on one course of action more than a realistic appraisal of alternatives, they are engaging in groupthink.


Experts said Friday that while groupthink was not entirely responsible for the acceptance of faulty intelligence information on Iraq, the Bush administration was, by design, particularly susceptible to that risky style of decision-making.

“Groupthink is more likely to arise when there is a strong premium on loyalty and when there is not a lot of intellectual range or diversity within a decision-making body,” said Stephen M. Walt, academic dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “The Bush administration has been an unusually secretive group of like-minded people where a very high premium is placed on loyalty.”

All organizations and administrations face the same risk, Walt said. He added that while the report specifically indicted the intelligence community, others -- including Democratic lawmakers and the media -- also failed to challenge basic assumptions about Iraq’s weapons capability.

“When a president makes a decision about something, there is a tendency to get on the train rather than throwing yourself in front of it,” he said. “Whatever Bush’s flaws may be, indecision is not one of them.”

Business schools and political scientists are among those who warn would-be policymakers and managers of the dangers of groupthink. CRM Learning, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based company specializing in developing products for leadership and management development, has been selling its popular Groupthink video program since the 1970s.

“It’s one of those films that people use again and again as new managers or leaders come in,” said Lyndi Calder, the company’s vice president of marketing.

The commonly cited “symptoms” of groupthink are a fundamental overconfidence that gives members an illusion of invulnerability and a belief in the inherent morality of the group.

The groupthink dynamic also is characterized by a pressure to conform that often leads group members with different ideas to censor themselves. But groupthink is most likely to occur when all or most members of a group share the same views.

In that sense, it is the opposite of collective wisdom, said James Surowiecki, a financial writer for the New Yorker and author of the recent book, “The Wisdom of Crowds.”

“What’s really striking about groupthink is not so much that dissenting opinions are crushed or shouted down, but they come to seem improbable,” he said. “Everyone operates on the idea that this is true, so everyone goes out to prove that it’s true.”

Surowiecki, who concludes in his book that “under the right circumstances, most groups are remarkably intelligent,” said it’s when leaders surround themselves with like-minded people that groupthink is a danger.

“Collective wisdom,” by contrast, comes when “each person in the group is offering his or her best independent forecast,” he said. “It’s not at all about compromise or consensus.”

He said a guiding principle of the Bush administration seems to be that “everyone needs to be on the same page to reach a decision.” To reach good decisions, he said, “I think it’s exactly the opposite.”