Iraq Autopsy: Lessons in Groupthink
I work in both Bridgeport and New York City. When I go to work in Bridgeport I stay for a few nights with some family friends in Riverside to make the trip more bearable. This means that I take a train from Riverside toward New Haven – a rather untravelled journey. I normally get to the stop about five minutes early and stand on NH-bound platform and then watch the businessman headed in the other direction swarm to the other platform. I have yet to be joined by a single other passenger – my situation is unique. I know for a fact that my train will take me where I want to go, but I still doubt myself. l feel an unexplainable desire to join the others across the platform, I feel an almost overwhelming to conform even though the urge is entirely absurd. But it’s not – separation from the pack is an evolutionary no-no. Ancestors that did not feel some desire toward conformity would quickly be selected against and as a result we humans have an innate tendency to conform.
Perhaps the most famous studies on the subject were performed by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. An unwitting participant is placed in a room with seven other “confederates,” actors who already knew the aim of the experiment. All eight participants were shown the below pair of cards and were asked to say which of the lines on the right the line on the left corresponded to, with the participant answering after the confederates. In the control study, when there was no pressure on the participant, they answered incorrectly less for less than one percent of the trials. However, once they were pressured by actors intentionally giving the wrong answer, 75 percent of the participants answered incorrectly on at least one trial. In another iteration, when the participant had an ally, the amount of incorrect answers plummeted.
Other studies have confirmed what has been called “pluralistic ignorance,” where lots of people all believe that everyone else is “doing it” (one confirmed that while most college students think binge drinking is dumb, they think that everyone else thinks it’s cool). The pluralistic ignorance creates in the minds of the few true believers what psychologists call a “false consensus.”
These cognitive biases, together, form what is called “groupthink,” the hypothesis forwarded by Irving Janis in the wake of the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion that,
The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members 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.
This hypothesis should be examined carefully in the post-mortem of Iraq.
Consider for instance, Rumsfeld’s famous, and ill-conceived attempt at philosophy:
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
Slajov Zizek, the popular Slovenian philosopher wrote later that there are also “unknown knows,” truths that, in a Freudian sense have been pushed into the unconscious. Without delving into Lacanian psychology, we can safely note that many “knowns” can, in a sense, become “unknown” when a false consensus arises.
Political Scientist Karen Alter predicted in 2002, that
Ten years from now, will we be looking back asking how the United States could have thought that an unprovoked, preventive war on Iraq could succeed when the signs of danger were so clear and ominous?
She wrote why she thought the Bush administration was hurling towards an avoidable war:
Bush has surrounded himself with advisers sharing ideological cohesiveness and radical views. How could the president decide not to go to war when his most trusted advisers — National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney (himself a former secretary of defense) — all say that the threat of nuclear proliferation makes removing Saddam Hussein unavoidable?
Dina Baide also discovered evidence of groupthink in the administration’s policies. She writes in a 2010 paper:
Empirically, I argue that the stress associated with producing policy after 9?11 exacerbated pre-existing fractures within the group between the hawks–– which included Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Perle, Feith, and the President–– and the skeptics who were less passionate about regime change in Iraq––Powell, Tenet, and Armitage. The hawks considered the group a ‘‘viable protective mechanism’’ as they were surrounded by fellow neoconservatives who had all previously advocated regime change, while other members of the group fell prey via anticipatory compliance and a search for leadership. Because the hawkish faction produced the of?cial and de facto leaders, their in?uence on the latter group resulted in the internalization of information and policy through the groupthink process (as this latter group searched for leadership). This was particularly notable in Powell’s case. Ultimately, the hawks experienced horizontal pressures associated with traditional groupthink, while other members of the administration experienced vertical pressures from the newly emergent hawkish leaders.
She finds within the Bush administration classic indications of groupthink, (illusion of unanimity, direct pressure on dissenters and mindguarding, self censorship, collective rationalization, illusion of invulnerability, belief in inherent morality and stereotyped view of ‘‘enemy’’ outgroups).
Plagued by groupthink, the administration made the policy based on partial and inconclusive evidence, found morality of their policy, and dismissed warnings regarding potential setbacks. Internalization of the information occurred during the evaluation process, moving policy-makers toward a war stance. Because they were tasked with ‘‘connecting the dots,’’ members of the administration found evidence to perform this function and briefed decision makers accordingly. The timing of Powell’s shift con?rms that internalization occurred during the evaluation stage. He remained weary of the
policy until new ‘‘intelligence’’ was uncovered; his speech to the UN marked the shift. This shift explains the urgency with which the administration pursued the war policy.
Of course, Hans Christian Anderson recognized this very human proclivity, and long before social science discovered the concepts of “pluralistic ignorance” and “false consensus” he warned that some absurd ideas may become so generally accepted it would take an innocent child to remind us that, “the emperor has no clothes.”