Groupthinking neocons

Nils Johan Lavik is a professor of psychiatry. You can tell by the way he dresses up his personal views in the clothes of science:

The US is the country in the world that has carried out most research in political psychology. But at the same time, the US is a country that seems to ignore the insight such research has given us [..] This discrepancy between theory and practice is striking in two ways. One is the tendency to demonize one's opponents. Two of the country's most popular presidents have taken the lead in this primitive art, Ronald Reagan through referring to the Soviet Union as an "Evil empire", and George W. Bush by naming Iran, Iraq and North Korea the "Axis of Evil". [..]

The other is knowledge about how psychological group dynamics can influence and disturb the political decision making process. [..] Inflated faith in one's own competence and judgment, a "closed mind" towards other views, avoidance from supplementing information, unwillingness to revise formerly stated opinions, and an emotional pressure towards agreement among the members of the group. Strong persons in a group can without formal leadership, through subconscious mechanisms, achieve an authority which enables them to steer the group's opinions.

That is no doubt true. But on what basis does Lavik conclude that the Bush administration has fallen victim to groupthink? He doesn't tell us. Nor does he explain why the Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq and North Korea aren't/weren't evil regimes. (If they were, it wouldn't be demonization to say so.) It's taken for granted that Bush and Reagan are/were deeply irrational leaders, which makes this article itself an interesting example of the problem Lavik is highlighting. If there's a reliable symptom of groupthink, it's when people in a group start taking things for granted. Unlike the other symptoms Lavik lists, this can be measured independently of your own opinions. Select a group, and start counting opinions. Map them out on an appropriate political/ideological map, and the distribution is the measure of that group's level of groupthink.

The problem with this method - from the point of view of, well, everyone - is that nobody escapes. There are no groups that aren't victim of groupthink. There are no groups where all the members are regularly and equally exposed to all kinds of opinions. I remember one that came close, but those were unique circumstances. The question is what degree of groupthink a group has, not whether or not there is any. The lesson is - or should be - one of introspection, and that lesson appears to have escaped Lavik. He accuses the Bush administration of groupthink. It's an unusually weak attempt, jumping straight from assumption to diagnosis, but in a way he's correct, though not in the way he thinks. I would expect to find a high level of groupthink in any government. It's the nature of politics to separate people into groups that think alike. At the top of the hill, with enemies on the outside and enemies on the inside, forced as you are to make unpopular and risky decisions, prestige, greed and fear combine to create excellent conditions for groupthink. But as this can be said of any government, and Lavik doesn't state any reason why Bush & Co are worse than the average group of top politicians, the argument is meaningless. He only explains why this is a threat, and then takes for granted that this explains Bush's foreign policy, which he takes for granted is bad.

It would be more interesting - and brave - if we all were to apply this analysis to ourselves: How am I victim of groupthink? Not "am I", but "how". Lavik may want to continue by asking himself how come Norway's most respected newspaper allows him to write an article about the US president that takes the accusation - a really big one - for granted, and jumps straight to the psychiatric diagnosis. Aftenposten and other newspapers should ask themselves how come they almost never print an article in favor of US foreign policy. "Because US foreign policy is wrong" is the wrong answer. Perhaps it is wrong, but you'd still be a victim of groupthink for shutting out the opinions of those millions of Americans who support that policy.

And while Lavik and Aftenposten asks themselves some tough questions, (not that I have much hope they will), you and I must do the same. The psychology of groupthink and other mental traps is an introspective tool more than a weapon. It should be applied to ourselves always, and to others only in exceptional cases. Exposure to unusual opinions is as central to the battlefield of ideas as objectivity is to science, and distribution of power is to democracy - and in the same way. "To win ourselves, we must give of ourselves."

Back to professor Lavik, who also attempts to diagnose the neocons:

[Robert Jay Lifton's] evaluation of the situation is that the superpower the US no longer is satisfied with just dominating world politics, but has developed an all-power ambition to "control history". This development began in the conservative think tank which many in the current administration were involved in. [..] [September 11] offended the superpower in a particularly humiliating way. This offense triggered what Lifton calls an apocalyptical impulse which gave the government the emotional mandate and moral legitimacy to declare the war on terror.

That sounds clever, but I wonder how he arrived at that conclusion. It's amazing how much sophisticated but misapplied thinking these mysterious neocons have inspired. Whole terminologies have been developed around them as confused political opponents try to wrap their minds around the inexplicable irrationality of making war on evil, dangerous dictators. And it would all fall apart if someone were to actually, you know, ask a neocon to explain their views. Or they could ask anyone else who shares that view, which in no way is limited to neocons. At the very least it's good sense to ask someone to explain their views in simple terms before you yourself attempt to explain their views in complex terms. I don't think Lavik or Lifton has done that. If they had, they wouldn't use a word like "apocalyptic", which refers to a belief in a big, final battle between good and evil which paves the way for eternal paradise, and not just any battle intended to make the world better. In the sense Lifton uses it, any war would be apocalyptic.

On to the conclusion:

It's an illusion to believe that one can be made invulnerable with superior military power alone. Such an attitude serves instead to recruit new terrorists, and increases the apocalyptic angst. The road to more safety and security can only go through a willingness to cooperate on more equal terms.

At least it's supposed to be the conclusion, but it would be more appropriate as a starting point. Lavik takes all this for granted - none of it is backed by any arguments in the article, (and none of the actual arguments are backed by the research he quotes) - and Aftenposten lets him do it, with the authority of a "professor of psychiatry". That should worry him and us more than the group dynamics of the Bush administration.


You could not be more right about Lavik. Lavik criticizes the "groupthink" of the US at the service of his own "cognitive dissonance".

Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance maintains that the way in which one gathers and compiles information about the world is by putting new information or experience into a preexisting framework. Occasionally, one will encounter information or evidence that contradicts or undermines ones theory of the world or framework of beliefs. When this occurs the typical response is to either disavow or ignore this recalcitrant information. Vary rarely do people discard their theory construction. However, when one upholds his beliefs at all costs, fundamentalism takes hold.

Lavik and others have preconceived views about the US and its policies in Iraq and elsewhere and it seems that not only will no amount of evidence change or moderate these views but, more fundamentally, these views are not subject to evidence generally.

What has surprised me has been the tenacity of these views in the face of the evidence. It doesn’t matter that no pipeline will be built in Afghanistan or that the operation in Iraq will cost the US more than 20 times Iraq's total GDP. They still maintain the war in Iraq was about oil and Afghanistan a pipeline. How many human rights advocates still to this day bemoan the war in Iraq despite the mass graves, torture chambers, and political prisons for children, and despite the refugee, and civilian casualty crises that weren't.

I must say your diagnosis of Lavik is on the mark.

I have been interested in "groupthink" ever since September 11. Except for a few exceptions, all of my family and friends remain in denial about the dangers of terrorism and the need to go to war. At first, I generally hid my views because I knew that the price of saying what I thought would be ostracism.

Finally, after 2 years, I began to try to convince people that Bush was not "a moron," that going to war in Iraq was necessary, and that we need to continue to fight terrorism by various means, which I won't go into here.

It still amazes me that with all that has happened and been revealed since September 11, so many people refuse to think new thoughts about the dangerous era that is upon us.


Some Berserkleyers also came out w/a study about conservatives.

Isn't it odd that no one wants to study the liberals???

--The road to more safety and security can only go through a willingness to cooperate on more equal terms.--

I smell tax increase.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." B. Franklin

--Historical Review of Pennsylvania.

I hesitate to give Lavik too much credit, but "groupthink" is a precise term coined by organizational psychologists, the most prominent of these being Irving Lester Janis. Based on several case studies (the Bay of Pigs fiasco being one) he noted that groupthink is characterized by eight main symptoms:

(1) a shared illusion of invulnerability, which leads to an extraordinary degree of over-optimism and risk-taking;

(2) manifestations of direct pressure on individuals who express disagreement with or doubt about the majority view, making it clear that their dissent is contrary to the expected behavior of loyal group members;

(3) fear of disapproval for deviating from the group consensus, which leads each member to avoid voicing his misgivings and even to minimize to himself the importance of his doubts when most of the others seem to agree on a proposed course of action;

(4) a shared illusion of unanimity within the group concerning all the main judgments expressed by members who speak in favor of the majority view (partly resulting from the preceding symptom, which contributes to the false assumption that any individual who remains silent during any part of the discussion is in full accord with what the others are saying);

(5) stereotyped views of the enemy leaders as evil, often accompanied by the assumption that they are too weak or too stupid to deal effectively with whatever risky attempts are made to outdo them;

(6) an unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the in-group, which inclines the members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions;

(7) the emergence of self-appointed mind guards within the group—members who take it upon themselves to protect the leader and fellow members from adverse information that may prevent them from being able to continue their shared sense of complacency about the effectiveness and morality of past decisions; and

(8) shared efforts to construct rationalizations in order to be able to ignore warnings and other forms of negative feedback, which, if taken seriously, would lead the members to reconsider the assumptions they continue to take for granted each time they recommit themselves to their past policy decisions.

We simply don't have enough of an inside view of the Bush administration to assess whether there is groupthink. There is certainly reason to speculate that there is, but there are also indications that Bush does appoint devil's advocates and seeks opposing views.

America did not feel humiliation on Sept. 11. People flying airplanes they didn't (and couldn't) invent and build and who needed 3 years of flight school just to learn how to steer in a rather cheap, sucker-punch action are not effective deliverers of humiliation.

If the 3rd Infantry Division had been wiped out by Saddam's 'Hammurabi' division, then look for the American public to feel something in the neighborhood of humiliation...

Though (re the above comment by me) being effective capitalists defeat at the hands of the Hammurabi division would just allow us to see our weaknesses and give us the opportunity to get better very fast.

Humilation doesn't effect practical, creative, and free people who are living in the real world. Pathological people (and people's) are incapable of benifitting from humiliation. Look at the left in America and Western Europe for instance...

Leif: "We simply don't have enough of an inside view of the Bush administration to assess whether there is groupthink. There is certainly reason to speculate that there is, but there are also indications that Bush does appoint devil's advocates and seeks opposing views."

I think we can say for sure that there is - on some issues. I really can't see how you can create an ideological group that in no way at all is victim to groupthink, (even in the more specific sense you use it here). Using Devil's advocates reduces the problem, but which alternative views do they choose to cover? How well do they do it? Are they taken seriously by the other members of the group? The question is whether the Bush administration is worse at this than we can expect a government to be, and _that_ we don't know. But it's not possible to voice all possible views in a group, especially not one under time pressure and political pressure. All one can do is try, and try, and try.

We see it in blogs as well, for instance in the blogosphere cluster of hawkish, right-wing warblogs which I'm part of. We see it in the small community of people who write comments in this blog. Many views are simply not voiced. And that leads to or is caused by groupthink. That's what we should be concerned about, not just the most extreme cases of groupthink where all the factors you list are present.

Bjørn - if Lavik uses the term "groupthink" in the narrow sense (which I assume he at least pretends to since he refers to the field of political psychology), we should be careful not to hijack the premise by assuming he means it in a broad sense.

Seems to me there's enough "groupthink" to cover all the aisles, greenie, tranzi, conservative, liberal (American definitions).

Take ANWR for example, millions of $, millions of trees destroyed and multi-millions raised to defend each sides' position. (hmmm, sometimes I wonder if it's really about OIL.) We drill, we get the answer. Either there's more or less, but the question will never be answered until we drill.

Bjorn, you wrote: "We see it in blogs as well, for instance in the blogosphere cluster of hawkish, right-wing warblogs which I'm part of. We see it in the small community of people who write comments in this blog. Many views are simply not voiced. And that leads to or is caused by groupthink."

I think the key word re your blog is "community." I rarely write in comments sections of blogs who have an entirely different point of view. That would take too much writing and work. Here I can express a mild disagreement as in a conversation among like-minded people, who think for themselves. So maybe there is a thin line between "community" and "groupthink."

A conversation with people holding complete opposite views becomes impossible rather quickly. For example, the exchange between you and ct above shows the impossibility of bridging one kind of "thought-gap." (Quotes because this isn't good English, but I can't think of the appropriate term right now.)

Oops, sorry, the exchange between you and ct was on the multiculturalism thread re Satan.

Since I'm making corrections--the above should say "completely" opposite views

Totoro: "I think the key word re your blog is "community.""

I don't want to offend anyone, because I think the people who write here are great. But I also worry about the tendency of an opinionated blog like this one of attracting people who think similarly and scare away all the others. It's not that I want any fewer of the ones who write here, I'd just like some more of the ones who don't.

"A conversation with people holding complete opposite views becomes impossible rather quickly. For example, the exchange between you and ct above shows the impossibility of bridging one kind of "thought-gap.""

But it's not, if people go about it the right way. My ideal of how a community should be was a BBS run by a good friend of mine (Rune-Kristian Viken, he writes here once in a while) in the 90's. There were literally all kinds of views, right-wingers, left-wingers, atheists, christians, even a neo-nazi - and it worked. People could _try_ to pull a "I'm right because God said so/this book said so/I say so", but the others wouldn't let them get away with it. And because they were the right people in the right mood, very often the disagreement would lead to an interesting debate that stuck to the issue, and avoided personal attacks. You couldn't take much for granted. Casually mention the Holocaust and the neo-nazi would butt in and say it never happened. I and Rune-Kristian had to become semi-experts on Holocaust denial to be able to counter him. That was a _good thing_. And we had a community. When I say I want people to disagree with me, I literally mean that it would be a good thing if someone were to contradict everything I ever said, and then hang around to defend that position. The more articulate and polite the better. Not because it would lead to everyone hugging and coming around to each others point of view, but to force us all to weed out the week parts of our ideas. The only place to do that is on the battlefield of ideas, not in cozy chats with people who basically agree with each other.

What a good debate usually leads to is that both points of view are stripped down to the essentials - not fancy rhetorics and cheap shots, but the hard core of the idea. Very often, the disagreement over that idea will be something too axiomatic to debate, ie. I believe in this and you believe in that. That doesn't mean the whole thing was wasted. Going _beyond_ that point is a waste, but reaching it is useful.

Superb analysis, Bjorn.


RE: Group think, the problem here is that if somebody disagrees somewhat from the opinions expressed, than when they are openly criticised (wrongly or rightly) by the majority of poster's here they'd would perhaps feel a trifle unwelcomed.

As for the liklihood of grp think occuring within the Bush Administration, I'd have to think that this extremly likley. Group think arises in any grp, which takes no active measures against (ie through the use of no blame brainstorming, devil's advocates and anonymous suggestions.

David E.

David: "the problem here is that if somebody disagrees somewhat from the opinions expressed, than when they are openly criticised (wrongly or rightly) by the majority of poster's here they'd would perhaps feel a trifle unwelcomed."

Yes - this is difficult to avoid unless there's also diversity within the core of the group. But the solution is not to stop arguing, to simply accept everything anyone says as one of many equally legitimate point of views. That may lead to more diversity, but I don't want diversity for its own sake, I want it for the effect it has on debates. Confrontation is good. Ten people from all over the spectrum just smiling at each other do no good to anyone.

I don't think there's an easy solution here. But it can't do any harm to at least keep the problem and the ideal in mind.

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