11.0 Working Groups: Performance and Decision Making

Groupthink and Presidential Decision Making

In 2003, President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, made specific claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The president claimed that there was evidence for “500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; mobile biological weapons labs” and “a design for a nuclear weapon.”

But none of this was true, and in 2004, after the war was started, Bush himself called for an investigation of intelligence failures about such weapons preceding the invasion of Iraq.

Many Americans were surprised at the vast failure of intelligence that led the United States into war. In fact, Bush’s decision to go to war based on erroneous facts is part of a long tradition of decision making in the White House.

Psychologist Irving Janis popularized the term groupthink in the 1970s to describe the dynamic that afflicted the Kennedy administration when the president and a close-knit band of advisers authorized the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961. The president’s view was that the Cuban people would greet the American-backed invaders as liberators who would replace Castro’s dictatorship with democracy. In fact, no Cubans greeted the American-backed force as liberators, and Cuba rapidly defeated the invaders.

The reasons for the erroneous consensus are easy to understand, at least in hindsight. Kennedy and his advisers largely relied on testimony from Cuban exiles, coupled with a selective reading of available intelligence. As is natural, the president and his advisers searched for information to support their point of view. Those supporting the group’s views were invited into the discussion. In contrast, dissenters were seen as not being team players and had difficulty in getting a hearing. Some dissenters feared to speak loudly, wanting to maintain political influence. As the top team became more selective in gathering information, the bias of information that reached the president became ever more pronounced.

A few years later, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson became mired in the Vietnam War. The historical record shows that once again, few voices at the very top levels of the administration gave the president the information he needed to make unbiased decisions. Johnson was frequently told that the United States was winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese but was rarely informed that most Vietnamese viewed the Americans as occupiers, not liberators. The result was another presidential example of groupthink, with the president repeatedly surprised by military failures.

How could a president, a generation after the debacles at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam, once again fall prey to the well-documented problem of groupthink? The answer, in the language of former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, is that Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies formed “a praetorian guard that encircled the president” to block out views they did not like. Unfortunately, filtering dissent is associated with more famous presidential failures than spectacular successes.

Source: Levine, D. I. (2004, February 5). Groupthink and Iraq. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/02/05/EDGV34OCEP1.DTL.

Adapted from “Chapter 11: Working Groups: Performance and Decision Making” of Principles of Social Psychology, 2015, used according to creative commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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