Groupthink

I am currently reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and ran across this quote about diversity:

The negative case for diversity, as we’ve seen, is that diversity makes it easier for a group to make decisions based on facts, rather than on influence, authority or group allegiance … After a detailed study of American foreing policy fiascos, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the failure to anticipate Pearl Habor, [Irving] Janis argued taht when decision-makers are too much alike – in worldview and mind-set – they easily fall prey to groupthink. Homogenous groups become cohesive more easily than diverse groups, and as they become more cohesive, they also become more dependent on the group, more insulted from outside opinions, and therefore more convinced that the group’s judgement on important issues must be right. These kind of groups, Janis suggested, share an illusio of invulnerability, a willingness to rationalize away possible counterarguments to the group’s position, and a conviction that dissent is not useful.

Remind you of anyone? By diversity, he’s doesn’t mean “diversity” the way academics do. He means differences of opinion. (It’s worth noting, however, that the lone voice of dissent in our latest foreign policy fiasco was that of a black man – Colin Powell.)

We have a President who likes to surround himself with people who think alike – authoritarian in temperament, convinced of American invincibility and viewing the law and the Constitution as obstacles not guides. He’s not unique in this, of course. But we’re know seeing, in vivid red colors, the result of having a bunch of people running the country who agree with each other.

Reagan was different. His decision were often made after heated discussion among his staff. But even Reagan messed up occasionally – as in the War on Drugs. That’s understandable since most Presidential Administrations have a dearth of crack addicts.

It’s not just conservatives who are prone to stupid groupthink, of course. “Reasonable rational” iberals are even worse. I work in academia were everyone – man or woman, black white or polka-dot – thinks alike. And the pressure to conform is enormous. I don’t even bother to express my opinion anymore. And they are not only convinced that their dumb political ideas – gun control, high taxes and big government – can work; they are convinced that they are far smarter and far more reasonable than the skeptics. They have letters after their name, dontchya know.

There is peculiar kind of grand stupidity that comes out of smart people agreeing with each other. Communism, fascism, socialism, neo-conservatism, statism – these are all grand ideas for running the world that have crashed upon the rocks of reality. Rocks the world might have been spared with greater diversity of opinion.

Iraq can now take its place with our previous foreign policy fiascos and we can sleep comfortably knowing that we haven’t learned anything from our previous blunders. As things began to unravel, we stuck to the groupthink that all was well. And before I get too high on my horse, I was part of the groupthink that stupidly thought democracy could be brought to a multi-ethnic middle eastern nation that was drawn on a map by the French with an army a third of the size we needed. I knew that when everyone around me was agreeing, I should get scared and reconsider my opinions. I didn’t.

A more intellectually diverse group of people – or more rational, intelligent and articulate dissenters — would have spared us the agonies. Yes, I’m saying the dissenters bear some blame. They could have raised rational arguments against the invasion – or better yet, advocated for far superior management of the post-invasion Iraq. They could have raised their voices when the situation began to get out of control. But they were too busy chanting “no blood for oil” and screaming about Haliburton and hating Bush to bother.

I keep hoping that the Information Age and the blogosphere will help us make better decisions in the future. But I know politicians. They like their groupthink. They don’t like skeptics who poke holes in their fantasies.

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