It happens all the time in small, closely-knit groups – cabinets, party executives, boards of directors, church congregations or club committees. It is called groupthink. It is when such groups become more and more certain that their collective judgment is infallible. Groupthink signals big trouble.
The individuals within such groups, who may or may not be very bright, find themselves listening only to themselves. They find themselves stressing the absolute need for loyalty to the consensus. Increasingly they begin to equate dissent with a kind of treason. They live in an echo chamber of their own views. They do not think of the hard questions to ask and even if they do they soon get to the point when they would never think of actually asking them. They pay attention only to information that fits their own conclusions and block out information that does not. So the more they discuss the more they are convinced they are right. Reality is overwhelmed in the comfort zone of groupthink conformity.
To an ordinarily intelligent, reasonably independent, person all this seems absurd. But it happens again and again and again in history and around the corner not far from you and me. Any group of people in charge of anything for a long time – committee, board, party executive or government – the longer it stays in charge becomes more and more liable to the groupthink risk.
Who can doubt that groupthink was responsible for the gigantic mess which America got itself into in Iraq? A small group of neoconservatives surrounding President Bush, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Assistant Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, taking advantage of an America stunned by the terrorist attack of 9/11, determined to take out Saddam Hussein and establish American power in an important, oil-rich Middle East state. They then successfully blocked out all information and views contrary to what they wanted, selectively presented to the President and themselves information and views favourable to their position, and proceeded to impose their groupthink on the administration, the Congress and, sadly, the American people. Even Colin Powell was trapped in that awful echo chamber of single-minded decision-makers hermetically sealed off from all opposing views, ordinary common sense and even from what should have been the irrefutable daily flow of facts on the ground. Groupthink was powerful enough to allow such men to believe that American soldiers would be welcomed in Iraq with open arms and strewn flowers. Let us hope Barack Obama, a sharp thinker and deeply read in history, has learned that lesson.
At home in Guyana groupthink has prevailed for decades. Ethnic division endured because group thinking on each side of a cleavage prevented solutions and remedies that challenge how each side thinks. Opposed group thinking gives completely conflicting versions of the same events, the same facts, the same dangers and threats, the same potential for progress.
Dialogue breaks down because of groupthink on all sides. What has our politics been but echo chambers sealed off from each other? When some few try to raise their voices above the snarling echoes they are soon silenced or sidelined well before they can make a real difference. Groupthinkers by definition only wish to listen to their own thoughts and applaud their own actions.
It is never too late – in government or opposition – to try and try again to break new ground. One senses that it is time for fresh voices and ideas to contend in chambers where previously only outworn and dutiful echoes sounded. If not now, when? Urging generosity despite everything, Czeslaw Milosz wrote a line that speaks to all men: “Open the clenched fist of the past.” That’s hard to do but it would be better for us and for the coming generations if we could.
Alfred Sloan, probably the greatest and certainly one of the most successful business executives who ever lived, ran General Motors from 1923 to 1956. He loathed the debates of yes-men and feared the threat posed by unanimity. In recent years the great company he ran so well has fallen victim to a very serious case of groupthink and is virtually bust as a result.
“Gentlemen,” Alfred Sloan would sum up when necessary, “I take it that we are all in complete agreement on this decision. I propose therefore that we postpone further discussion to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps get some real understanding of what the decision is really all about.”