Blinded by ‘groupthink’ – why does it keep happening (and is there anything we can do to stop it)?

It is the early months of 1961, and some of the world’s most renowned strategic brains have gathered at the White House to discuss what they view as a new contagion – not a virus, but revolutionary Communism, which they fear will rip across the world. The most pressing outbreak is in Cuba, just overrun by Fidel Castro.

The Americans mulling a response include the famously able Robert McNamara, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, the special operations veteran and CIA chief Allen Dulles, and of course the young president, JFK, and his brother Bobby. In total, dozens of brilliant minds relentlessly plot and plan.

Their answer: the Bay of Pigs, one of the most notorious foreign policy fiascos of the 20th century, an operation so inept, so hare-brained, it now seems inconceivable that it was ever given the green light by anyone, let alone a contingent of the most eminent thinkers on the planet.

“There were 50 or so of us, presumably the most experienced and smartest people we could get,” Kennedy later recalled. “Five minutes after it began to fall in, we all looked at each other and asked: ‘How could we have been so stupid?’ When we saw the wide range of the failures we asked ourselves why it had not been apparent to somebody from the start.”

Cuban leader Fidel Castro sits inside a tank during the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion

Credit: AP

The answer, of course, was ‘groupthink’ – that blanket of camaraderie that smothers clear analysis, as members of a tight-knit band strive to preserve group cohesion above all else, prizing their place in the club more than anything, suppressing their own doubts and silencing those of others, while leaping to conclusions without proper evaluation and data.

So neatly does the word groupthink express this concept that it is tempting to believe it has always existed. But it was not until more than a decade after the Bay of Pigs, in 1972, that Irving Janis, a psychologist at Yale University, coined the term, leaning on the dystopian ‘doublethink’ of Orwell’s 1984, which the author described menacingly as “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies”.

Today groupthink is back, the term peppered throughout the latest, damning, joint report of Parliament’s Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees into the pandemic, which blames it for a cosy yet lethal consensus between scientists and Government ministers in the early months of 2020. The top brains all agreed, essentially, that it was pointless fighting the coming pandemic. Infections would be unstoppable, whatever the cost. The group, seeking quick and comfortable unanimity, soon settled on the inevitably of herd immunity, when what was required was a little immunity from the No. 10 herd.  

Boris Johnson gives a press conference in March 2020 with Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance

Credit: Times

It shouldn’t have been that hard to do. The knee-jerk response was based on planning for a flu pandemic, simply because flu had long been the outbreak deemed most likely to strike Britain. Even calm and rational minds outside the room, like Jeremy Hunt, admit to suffering. “There was a groupthink that it should be tackled like a flu pandemic,” he said on Tuesday. No one dared to stand up and point out the astonishingly simple fact that Covid was not caused by an influenza virus, but a coronavirus.

If they had, it is clear, that initial, fatalistic laissez-faire policy, waved passively into being by “presumably the most experienced and smartest people we could get” would have been shelved much earlier. Instead of mirroring policy in Europe and North America, where the flu fallacy was just as dominant, we might have turned to South East Asia, site of two coronavirus epidemics in the past 20 years, to see what they were doing: early lockdown, border control, track and trace. According to the former Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies: “Quite simply, we were in groupthink. Our infectious disease experts really did not believe that SARS, or another SARS, would get from Asia to us.” And the politicians did not challenge the experts.

It is easy to understand why. Standing out comes at a cost. Janis describes how, as the in-group of decision-makers settles on its preferred interpretation of events, it cloaks itself and its chosen path with morality. Dissenters become not just wrong, but somehow evil. Members of the club, meanwhile, are intoxicated by an image of themselves as both right and virtuous.

Once such groupthink is identified and demolished, however, it is all too easy for a new, opposing orthodoxy to become established in its place. Thus the fallout from the delayed first lockdown – with its lack of PPE and its NHS evacuation of infected pensioners into care homes to seed the disease among the most frail – seamlessly morphed into a happy advocacy of subsequent lockdowns, even as data began to pile up showing that the young and fit were overwhelmingly spared the disease’s worst effects, or that shutting schools and playgrounds was far more damaging in the round than keeping them open. An irony began to emerge: groupthink – which historians have often credited dictators with deploying to whip up crowds and drive revolutions – was now being pressed into service to subdue the nation and keep its people off the streets. Lockdown did not prove a panacea. New variants emerged – first Kent, then Delta – just as vaccines came on line to draw new battle lines. Stopping transmission became secondary to preventing severe illness. New cases became less important than hospitalisations.

And the UK’s 213 days of national lockdown, over three spells, longer than almost anywhere in the world, including much of Australia, took on new context, as hidden costs began to emerge – the tens of thousands of undetected cancers, the countless classes of lost schooling – opportunities lost and shortened lives that are still being counted today, and whose bill will continue to rise in the years to come.  

Of course, hindsight is wonderful, and it can be hard to distinguish between destructive consensus and simple ignorance or ineptitude. Maybe those around the table in March 2020 didn’t have the facts or didn’t know what they were doing. The groupthink narrative is, it will surprise no one to learn, in part driven by Dominic Cummings, always keen to portray himself as the brilliant iconoclast. His closest peer is probably Anders Tegnell, the Swedish state epidemiologist who set his country on a very different Covid path to its neighbours. While Cummings stood up for lockdown, Tegnell became something of a celebrity for persisting with the anti-lockdown strategy that Britain eventually abandoned. Some there now think blind respect for Tegnell’s contrarianism became a kind of Swedish government groupthink of its own.

Because in the end, the two strategies began to meet in the middle, as Sweden was forced to toughen its easygoing approach, and other countries made to realise that the disease was not eradicable, but endemic. In Australia and New Zealand, the lockdown doctrine is only now crumbling.

Groupthink, though, has made its mark. Sweden has suffered 1,467 Covid deaths per million people, three times the number in Denmark and almost 10 times that in Norway. South Korea, veteran of SARS, has had just 50 Covid deaths per million. Britain has had more than 2,000.

And whatever the claims of Cummings or Tegnell, it is usually not a lone prophet who leads us all through confusion and darkness to the light.

Just a year and a half after the Bay of Pigs, in October 1962, news reached the White House that Moscow was placing nuclear missiles on Cuba. Kennedy’s top brass called for a huge strike to destroy the missiles. But Kennedy, who had instigated a wide-ranging inquiry into the catastrophe of 18 months before, drew on its conclusions to demand a new kind of decision making. The rules were simple: everyone had to be sceptical, there would be different groups working on alternatives which each would present to the other and even swap, and these options would often be worked up outside the White House, or away from JFK himself, so that formality of setting and follow-the-leader do not block free thinking. This time, Bobby Kennedy described discussions as “completely uninhibited”. The initial drift towards potentially world-ending military strikes gave way to the idea of a naval blockade.

Reform, it turns out, is possible. Groups can avoid groupthink. 

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