A group of 1,500 Cuban exiles with American support landed at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. Their intention was to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro. The result was an utter disaster. Cuba had an army of about 25,000 and a militia of about 200,000. Within a few days, nearly all of the invaders had been killed or captured. The US was humiliated. Castro was triumphant.
How could this have happened? Kennedy and his advisors were, without doubt, highly intelligent people from their country’s best universities. They had a massive and highly sophisticated intelligence service. How did they come to engineer such a fiasco?
A psychologist called Irving Janis asked these questions. He studied what had happened in the lead up to the Bay of Pigs debacle. As a result he identified a process that he called ‘Groupthink’.
Further studies led to groupthink being identified in many different situations. It has been suggested that groupthink can help us to understand, among other things, the policy of appeasement towards Hitler, the failure of American forces to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbour and the escalation of the Vietnam War. In more recent times it has been used to explain the collapse of Enron and Northern Rock and the decision to invade Iraq.
Groupthink occurs when the pressures within a group of people cause them to make decisions without considering alternatives. Advice or information that is contrary to their beliefs is ignored.
Typically in a situation of groupthink there is a belief in the group’s own morality or rightness. Group members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions. Members are pressured not to express views that are against those of the group. Doubts and deviations from the perceived consensus are not expressed. There is typically, an illusion of total agreement in that the view of the majority is assumed to be unanimous. People who act as ‘mindguards’ protect the group and its leader from information contrary to the group’s cohesiveness and views. An illusion of invulnerability develops. Outsiders are stereotyped.
When I first came across groupthink, a number of questions entered my mind. ‘Could a group of church leaders ever succumb to groupthink?’ ‘Could a whole church ever find itself in groupthink?’ As a Christian I did not like the idea that they could, but the question needed to be asked.
I knew many churches that were well run with humble, caring, godly leadership. Rather uncomfortably, however, I recognised some, if not all, of the symptoms of groupthink in others. Perhaps I should not have been surprised. A group is more likely to succumb to groupthink if it is comprised of members from similar backgrounds, where there is insufficient clarity with regard to decision-making, and where the group is isolated from outside opinions. Highly cohesive groups are particularly vulnerable.
Church leaders are not immune. We are all prone to the sin of pride that appears to underlie the process of groupthink.
What should church leaders do to prevent groupthink occurring?
Janis made some suggestions. These included assigning the role of ‘critical evaluator’ to each group member to allow them to express their doubts and objections. Higher-up members of a group should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group. Several independent groups can be assigned to work on the same problem. All effective alternatives should be examined.
Outsiders with knowledge of the subject area should be invited to attend meetings for questions and discussion. Group members should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside the group. At least one group member should be assigned the role of raising difficult questions.
Janis’s ideas may be helpful and could be considered by church leaders. It is good for leaders to interact with their congregations over decisions.
As Christians, however, we have our own source of wisdom and advice. In his Epistle James tells us about two kinds of wisdom, one that is ‘earthly’ and one that comes from above. I do not believe he is dismissing what we can learn from the social sciences. Rather he contrasts the ‘wisdom’ of envy and selfish ambition with that which is considerate, submissive and impartial.
It is the ‘earthly’ wisdom with its pride, arrogance and plans for self-aggrandisement that can lead a group, including church leaders, into groupthink. It is the wisdom that comes from above with its humility and its willingness to consider others that will prevent it.
As we pass the dubious anniversary of the Bay of Pigs debacle, it may be useful to contemplate the follies of the supposedly wise and to learn what we can from people like Janis.
member of Central Baptist Church, Walthamstow;
a psychologist in private practice (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Janis, Irving L. (1972), Victims of Groupthink, New York, Houghton Mifflin
Janis, Irving L. (1982), Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos, second edition, New York, Houghton Mifflin