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How JFK Inspired the Term ‘Groupthink’

How JFK Inspired the Term ‘Groupthink’

A few weeks after John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States, the CIA approached him about a plan set in motion by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, for a secret military operation that later came to be known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

The year was 1960, just months after a communist revolutionary named Fidel Castro overthrew his government in an armed rebellion, installing himself as dictator and turning Cuba into a one-party state.

Fearing a rising tide of communism across the globe, President Eisenhower had approved a plan, devised by CIA Director Allen Dulles, to land in a swampy area of Cuba’s southern coast in hopes of sparking revolt against Castro and overthrowing the new communist régime. The only question was whether Kennedy would choose to proceed with the plan.

The decision he ultimately made came to be known as one of the most embarrassing foreign policy blunders of all time — and became the archetypal example of “groupthink,” the tendency of groups to become so swept up in a spirit of camaraderie and belonging that they stifle their doubts, silence dissenters, and rush to consensus without fully analyzing ideas.

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Groupthink in organizations

Groupthink is lethal not just for policymakers, but also for companies, leading to bad decisions throughout the corporate world, from everyday business gaffes to large-scale corporate fraud and global financial bubbles. Today, the phenomenon has been blamed for many of the most visible collapses in the history of business, from Lehman Brothers to Enron to Worldcom to the subprime mortgage bubble leading up to the global financial crisis.

For Kennedy, the consequences were so catastrophic that observers couldn’t help but wonder how such a monumentally bad decision could have been made — especially since Kennedy spent days discussing it with a team of famously brilliant advisors, including Robert McNamara, Robert Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Allen Dulles, and about 40 others.

The plan they approved went something like this. Around 1400 Cuban exiles, stationed in Guatemala and already training with the CIA, would storm the beachhead at Bahía de cochinos, armed with American artillery, and march on Havana. Inspired by American heroism, the Cuban people would rise up against Fidel Castro, the encroaching tide of communism would be turned, and Kennedy would glory in a righteous victory against a despicable enemy.

What happened instead was that resources that were meant to be made available were pulled at the last moment. The 1400 Cuban exiles who landed on the beach encountered a superior Cuban force of 20,000 soldiers. As they approached the landing site, they looked for the American fighter planes and naval destroyers they were promised. But that air and naval support never arrived. Without ammunition or an escape route, more 1200 Cuban exiles were taken prisoner. The rest were killed.

The whole thing was over in three days, Castro became a hero to his people, and Kennedy was humiliated on the world stage. Ultimately, the Bay of Pigs Invasion paved the way for Cuban and Russian partnership and a deepening of the Cold War.

“There were 50 or so of us, presumably the most experienced and smartest people we could get,” Kennedy would later recall. “But five minutes after it began to fall in, we all looked at each other and asked, ‘How could we have been so stupid?’”

Politics and psychology collide

Kennedy wasn’t the only one asking that question. The fiasco attracted the attention of Irving Janis, a Yale psychologist who studied group cohesion. Janis became interested in understanding how a team of self-evidently brilliant people can pool their intellectual powers and still somehow arrive at such an unquestioningly catastrophic decision.

Janis set out to identify a psychological mechanism that could explain the disastrous decision. After years of research, he published a book proposing the existence of a previously undiagnosed, unnamed, and unknown problem afflicting groups tasked with making decisions: a phenomenon he termed “groupthink.” When groups work together to make a decision, Janis posited, they suffer from a process problem that, although unnoticed by the members of the group, nevertheless distorts their perception of reality and leads to reckless, outrageous decisions.

In the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Janis discovered, the problem was that although Kennedy’s advisors had good reason to think the mission would fail, they never voiced these concerns. Although they harbored private doubts, they “never pressed, partly out of a fear of being labeled ‘soft’ or undaring in the eyes of their colleagues.” In the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., one of the advisors present at the meetings, Kennedy’s “senior officials… were unanimous for going ahead… Had one senior advisor opposed the adventure, I believe that Kennedy would have canceled it. No one spoke against it.”

Groupthink was at least partially responsible, Janis believed, for other foreign policy fiascoes as well: the decision by American military commanders in 1941 to ignore warnings of a surprise attack by Japan at Pearl Harbor; the decision in 1950 by Harry Truman and his advisers to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea; and the decision by Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers in the late 1960s to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Groupthink goes mainstream

After Janis’ study, the word groupthink entered the lexicon, and the concept became an everyday concept in political science, psychology, and management. In the decades since Janis first published his article, psychologists have blamed groupthink as a factor in the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra affair, and both the Challenger and the Columbia space shuttle explosions. 

Today, groupthink is widely blamed not just for foreign policy fiascoes, but for bad decisions throughout the corporate world, from everyday decision making on teams and executive boards to global financial bubbles and large-scale corporate fraud — but it all started with a bad decision in the White House by a new and inexperienced president.

The lesson for businesses is that any group of people that makes decisions is vulnerable to groupthink. Fortunately, there is a solution: diversity. For more information about how diversity can help a group to encourage dissenting opinions, analyze information more rigorously, and consider alternative options, you can check out our new white paper, “The Business Case: How Diversity Defeats Groupthink.”

This article is the third installment in NLI’s new series, Groupthink: The Master Class, a 6-week campaign to help leaders understand the science behind identifying — and eliminating — groupthink.

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2019-03-04T10:05:17-04:00February 20th, 2019|

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