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« Bernie Fuchs, RIP | Main | Foreign Misperceptions »

September 23, 2009

The Joy of Groupthink

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Management, like education and other disciplines, tends to go from one trendy concept to another. Call it a search for silver bullets. Carried long enough, the pattern comes closely enough to repeating itself that the description "cycle" can be applied.

These concepts usually have to do with how to change ongoing processes in a direction that improves one or more outcomes -- having happier students plus better test scores, for example.

On the other hand, there are organizational factors so perennial that one might even lump them into that ever-useful category, Human Nature. Today's case has to do with the tendency of people in groups to think and operate in similar ways.

At the action level, this is usually a good thing. In an army, something called doctrine is established that serves to reduce confusion and allow commanders to give orders in the knowledge that subordinates will attempt to carry out those orders in a predictable way. At the very lowest infantry level, this consists of fire-and-maneuver tactics for squads.

Doctrine-like behavior can be a bad thing at higher levels of management. This is what is sometimes called Groupthink, where certain ideas, information and courses of action are informally or even officially foreclosed. The danger here is that an organization will fail to notice a problem or danger and not act optimally when trouble occurs.

David French at National Review Online unearthed a U.S. Army set of bullet-points from 1977 or earlier concerning Groupthink; his posting is here.

Also from NRO is this article by Victor Davis Hanson that compares Groupthink that might be occurring in the Administration with Groupthink as it is often practiced in universities. Before emerging as a leading public intellectual, Hanson taught for many years at Fresno State University, not far from his family homestead near Selma, California. So he knows the academic turf.



posted by Donald at September 23, 2009


Would Robert McNamara and Systems Analysis be top-of-the-pops for Groupthink, at least in the western hemisphere? We'll never be able to match the commies for creepy, empty intellectualism...but we have a good go from time to time.

What about those Humanities courses where Derridan or deconstructionist or neo-post-whatever analysis is applied to politics, novels or "issues"? And whoever comes up with the best noun-used-as-verb (eg "gendered") gets the doctorate.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 23, 2009 7:46 PM

I can't think about Victor Davis Hanson without being reminded of the War Nerd's screed against him.

Posted by: Peter on September 23, 2009 9:55 PM

The eight symptoms of groupthink: 1) Illusion of Invulnerability; 2) Collective Rationalization; 3) Illusion of Morality; 4) Excessive Stereotyping; 5) Pressure for Conformity; 6) Self-Censorship; 7) Illusion of Unanimity; 8) Mindguards.

How many of these eight symptoms might apply to virtually all post WW II American Presidential administrations ... and most political blogs? Certainly those who disliked Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 would argue that all eight were on full display in those administrations, especially the most recent, while those on the right will find them amply on display with Clinton or Obama.

Is there a point beyond finding another cudgel with which to make a partisan attack on the current occupant of the White House? Or on those pointy-headed liberals running indoctrination camps disguised as universities? But wait ... isn't Hanson himself an academic? I thought all academics were liberals or forced into silence ... this is all so confusing.

Posted by: Chris White on September 24, 2009 12:07 AM

A habit of illiberal critique of the West is to suggest that as a community it likely will prove unable to see and act on problems that threaten its own continuity, e.g., mass immigration.

Posted by: Evan McLaren on September 24, 2009 2:35 PM

I read Daniel French's article, but I couldn't tell which universities or academic specialties he was writing about. Possibly because he didn't identify them. Boy, that's some bodacious reporting.

Posted by: marik on September 25, 2009 1:02 AM

I've actually taught in universities, and I could assure Mr. Hansen (if he were open to listening) that there are many different types of faculties on campuses, and that each has its own type of groupthink. Thus, there are groupthinkS on campuses.

Departments of physical education and business differ greatly from those of English and sociology.

Personally, I think the ideal university thrives on diversity of intellectual opinion, but I recognize that that is an unrealistic ideal. Groupthink exists in economics (Friedman) and Humanities (Fish). But it's not all the same Groupthink.

Posted by: marik on September 25, 2009 1:10 AM

I re-read Hanson's opinion piece, and it's even worse the second time than the first.

Full of stereotypes and b.s.

I can't imagine why you'd spread this word.

Maybe you think the Hoover Institution is full of impartial thinkers, rather than ideologues.

Posted by: marik on September 25, 2009 1:16 AM

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