Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, July 11, 2004

More on Groupthink

The Sunday LA Times opinion page has an interesting contribution from Robert Jervis, professor of political science at Columbia U. In it, Jervis argues that groupthink did not arise within the CIA. He argues that CIA analysts are known for "intellectual combativeness" among each other. However, Jervis contends that the same is not true at the level of political appointees. The cabinet level professional politicians are vulnerable to groupthink.

Jervis even argues that the real problem was politicians pushing their ideological agendas at the expense of realistic assesments of evidence.


Anonymous said...

Too bad that Jervis (well-respected heavy-hitter in the academic international relations world) gets it wrong on so many levels...

First, it IS groupthink when members bring a preconceived notion to a meeting "in anticipation of what they think will appeal to the other attendees." As Janis points out, these individuals think everybody elses thinks alike, so they don't rock the boat. This is self-censorship and does not require another to enforce it. It doesn't matter whether the meetings they attend are large, it just matters that they say what they think others want them to say.

Second, Janis's so-called "mindguards," whether from above or within the group, are part of the groupthink mentality. Mindguards actively review what is going on in a group and seek to manipulate the intellectual discussion so that everybody is "on the same page." They dismiss dissenting opinions and keep the orthodoxy fresh in everybody's minds. To dismiss, ignore, or simply leave out the political pressure from above or within the group ("mindguarding") is an obvious oversight from Jervis and the Senate in analyzing the workings of groupthink...but we don't really expect much from the Senate, do we?

Third, well, he misses the most important point. Groupthink is not the biggest problem here. Maybe it was for the Pentagon, although even there I'm beginning to doubt that (we'll save that for an addendum to this comment.) Instead, I'll simply say that the CIA had nobody on the ground in Iraq (see Baer's _See No Evil_), their "intelligence" came from one person, and they were, in Jervis's own words, possibly seeking worst case scenarios based on best case scenarios for Hussein. That is not a problem of groupthink. Groupthink is a symptom, the much larger disease is the lack of ANY intelligence from the Central Intelligence Agency. And that, I think, is a far scarier proposition than anybody has been willing to acknowledge.

OK, quick note because I'm sure Raised by Repubs. is pulling his hair out and going ballistic: I've about concluded the Pentagon was not operating under groupthink. I think, simply, that everybody making the decisions already thought the same thing. Yes, there were military brass in the Pentagon who disagreed, and Powell was not always a wet noodle, but generally, there was no need for a mindguard, no dismissing of outside intelligence, dissenting, etc., because these other people weren't in the decision loop or weren't that vocal.

But what about the case where the Pentagon civilians all thought one way and are then presented with possibly conflicting this groupthink? What if they all "knew" that they were right and had ALREADY dismissed outside criticism? Remember, many of these policy makers had signed a letter to Clinton in 1994-5 arguing for regime change. Why would any arguments now sway them? They didn't need to dismiss them in a groupthink manner, they already had. Maybe a case of groupthink as reinforcement, but I'll still hang on to my assertion that this was a done deal (coming up with the plan, "accounting" for other "problems," etc.) and since they all legitimately, without pressure from others, thought this, groupthink was not active...or not much of a cause for their policy.

Second, it looks increasingly like everybody, from the president down, thought this was the right plan and believed in the intelligence. Within the Executive Branch, only the State Department differed...or did they? Conventional wisdom says Powell appears to be the biggest victim of groupthink, because he went along, when his statements during and after the First Gulf War clearly show a radical change in position as he entered the Second Gulf War...but since he never really said this was a bad idea (I'd like to find ANY public statements along those lines), can we say it was groupthink without evidence? Methinks, though, that history may not reflect kindly on Mr. Powell's complete breakdown in moral fiber and his apparently desperate desire to remain loyal and in the loop, if, in fact, as we all suspect, he found this plan ludicrous from the beginning.

Raised By Republicans said...

My understanding of groupthink is certainly not full. However, I always had the impression that groupthink wasn't a thing that could done to somebody. That is Powell wouldn't neccessarily be a "victim" of being groupthunk by "mind guard." My understanding was that "groupthink" was a term used to describe a social phenomenon that occurrs passively as well as actively.

My question to "Anonymous" (who's writing sounds suspiciously like "the other political scientist") is this: What is the difference between a group of decision makers who ignore certain evidence because of a shared ideological point of view and "groupthink?" What characteristsics does groupthink have that the shared ideological POV thing doesn't?

Also, if the differences are as esoteric as the absence of a "mind guard" then does it really matter that Jervis and the Senate Intel Committee have misdefined "groupthink" ala Janis? Are the substantive aspects of their criticisms invalid?

(I didn't pull out any hair on that one. I'm glad you contributed your expert assesment of "groupthink!")

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