Sam Case: Groupthink: a discussion

This is an article by Sam Case (not his real name), a former police officer now working in sport and health.

I’m no expert. There I said it, open and honest from the get go, how refreshing.

The concept of groupthink has foundations laid out by the psychologist Irving L. Janis, it seeks to discover the workings of the collective mind in decision making. Understanding this concept, along with bias and other common traits allow, in theory, the ability to avoid the pitfalls and maximise group dynamics with a goal of better decision making.

My experience suggests that the majority of people have no awareness of these tendencies and those that do pay them too little regard.

Before I probe, very briefly, into the SAGE minutes I want you to consider the following and see if it has any resonance to your experience, albeit in a different area of life.

I spent much of my policing service with a gun in my hand, responding to tasking of a very dangerous and often dubious nature. Chaotic and unpredictable events that move fast, change direction like shoaled fish with a nasty habit of going boobs up.

The more time we had to ponder the problem the better we felt about the outcome, planning and decisions made by the team over coffee seemed better than those made in haste. You review the intelligence, study the target, maps and surveillance photos, working up a solution. All systems go, the down-sides skipped over, our sense of invincibility grows, the ‘rationality’ of our plan is unquestionable and the final Op order produced. Dissenting voices long since silenced. Strong personalities prevail. Groupthink rules.

The team gets briefed, vehicles loaded, weapons and comms checked, ready and off, hyped, committed and up for anything.

On the ‘plot’ waiting for the strike command. Heart pounding. Doubts creep in (no one admits this), the ‘what if ..’ questions. Remember what happened on the last job like this? Will my trusty MP5 have a stoppage at the final moment. What if the intelligence is wrong? The intelligence is always wrong! When did a plan last go to plan? Never… once…no never?

STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE booms the earpiece, we disembark running to our planned entry point. Then it happens, slowly but inevitably the plan gets destroyed by the reality. First the dog, a big bloody dog with sharp teeth, where was the intel on the dog! Team one are having a hard time trying to break the front door down. So now the only two in the building are me and the new guy. Pants will need a change after this. Outnumbered, but like lions (or mice) we press on. The house extension was not on the plan either, thirty seconds in and we are literally lost, in a house! We battle through screaming children (should have been at school, another inset day), pots and pans lobbed by a swearing, hysterical woman dressed in a bikini. Yes a bikini. This is true and not a post modern truth that only happened in my head…

Enough, you get the idea so I’ll stop there. Planning is a good idea, I’m not suggesting otherwise, but it’s a starting point, not an end, or even a means to an end. Adapt or fail. When planning, it is difficult to cover every scenario, a situation made worse by the reluctance to speak openly and critically of past performance for fear of the strong personalities. Another reason I think, is that most of the time we get away with it. Little damage, job over the line, in policing terms evidence gathered and conviction secured. The good stuff gets remembered the bad stuff brushed away. We don’t like to admit we where wrong or ill prepared. Human nature maybe. Not an excuse, just a fact.

So onto those SAGE minutes. Others are doing a grand job of trawling through and exposing what was offered in terms of advice and what was missing. Do we really suppose those minutes contain the totality of information required or given to make any sound judgements? Of course not. If you have ever been to a minuted meeting ( if not, accept my judgment that your life is the better for it) do the minutes really reflect what was said? The nuance, the ‘offline’ cabals and sub-groups that stitch everything up in advance without a sniff of contemporaneous note  taking? Much business is done on the golf course apparently and much advi ce is given off the official record.

If you want to be on the team, rocking the proverbial ‘boat’ is rarely welcome. This is how groupthink spreads, through back room or in this case ZOOM allegiances, support and deals. Research funding here, another panel appointment there. Snuffing out those who ask difficult questions, the very mavericks Mr Cummings claims he wants. Failing to consider what is common and already known, refusing to accept you can be seriously wrong, even when your esteemed colleagues, from all over the globe, are offering a different perspective. Empowering teams to challenge the norm and question the leader(s) is a very difficult circus to manage but worth the effort.

The SAGE minutes, to me, illustrate a group (including the wider government team) in denial about their own past performance, some more than others perhaps. It talks of needing to know more about a whole load of pretty important stuff like nosocomial infection rates and the colossal impact of public restrictions. Even by mid-April the blindingly obvious care home vulnerability fails to get a serious mention. It suggests a staggering disregard for collateral damage with the precautionary principle applied only to the virus and not the lockdown, classic groupthink.

This was not an immediate action plan. They had time to do better, yet claim they didn’t. It was novel they say, so they went for the untested ‘nuclear’ option, for a skirmish, intense and bloody maybe but a skirmish none the less. No serious consideration of the fallout that could ‘poison’ for decades.

If this was the state of the intel before one of my operations, I would call a pause, check other sources and read my own WHAT ABOUT GROUPTHINK check card (yes I have one), because the least worst answer is often staring you in the face. Team one only needed to try the handle, the door was never locked!

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17 thoughts on “Sam Case: Groupthink: a discussion

  1. Like this a lot, especially the closing comment about the door being open.

    Groupthink is a very real problem in all walks of life, the police example here brings it to life nicely. Our mainstream media have a lot to answer for too.

    I heard that SAGE has about 100 members, as well as being a cert for groupthink, I am reminded of the saying: “A camel was a horse designed by a committee”

  2. I agree that there is a lot of group think evident in SAGE minutes. When the list of 20+ SAGE members was published it was comprised of professors and civil servants, but nobody from the private sector. So you have a group of people all with similar academic and public sector backgrounds. To me it’s no surprise they all think the same. Are there really no clever people in the private sector?

    Here’s a little story. Around 15 years ago I was engineering director of a large European telecommunications company with responsibility for their mobile phone networks. From time to time I bumped into academics at conferences and meetings. On one occasion an erstwhile professor from the University of Surrey told me I had designed my 3G network wrong. As I listened to what he had to say it became clear he had no grasp of the practicalities of building or running a 3G network. Because he had no real world knowledge he really did believe he could do a better job than the team of 1000+ engineers at my company. I am given to understand that psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger effect. People overestimate their knowledge of areas they know little about. Another way of saying this is the more you know about something the more you realise you don’t know. In this example the professor over estimated his knowledge of building and running a network because he has so little knowledge in that area. Although if you ever needed to talk turbo-codes or voice codecs he was the man.

    I think SAGE desperately needs balancing with senior technical staff from the private sector. The next emergency that SAGE could be dealing with is a full on cyber-attack on the UK infrastructure. The people I would want advising on that are the experts from the IT and telecoms companies who deal with similar problems every day. If the only people providing advice are academics then the government is buggered. Which is pretty much where it is now.

  3. Great article. Maybe people from the private sector would help, but also would a devil’s advocate and a dose of commonsense. It’s obvious that a lockdown would indirectly cause other deaths, they didn’t need anyone to study that except to try and quantify it. Yet it doesn’t seem that they really cared about them and despite all the SAGE reports the government approach feels like it’s driven by panic and political considerations.

  4. @Sam

    Planning is a good idea, I’m not suggesting otherwise, but it’s a starting point, not an end, or even a means to an end. Adapt or fail

    Nails where SAGE etc fail. They refuse to adapt to empirical evidence, instead they ignore it and continue on same path. Too weak to admit they were wrong.

    In your analogy it would be you saying: dog, extension and children were not in plan, thus ignore as if they don’t exist

    What stood out for me in minutes was SAGE week after week stating C-19 R was <1; yet Gov't and media saying opposite

    Groupthink? I've always been a rebel

    @Martin S
    Civil service, NHS, PHE etc revealed refusal to use & hatred of private sector is astonishing and makes no sense. Their food, clothes, cars, drugs etc are all private sector
    Worse is that Hancock etc didn't take it out of their hands and use private sector as Germany did

  5. Call me a tin foil hatter but after looking at the documents relating to ‘agenda 2030’ I do not think the decisions are being made by our government.

  6. Somewhat related to this is Imperial College doubling down on their modelling. They’re now saying that lockdowns saved millions of lives and that without it 70% of the population would have been infected:

    Only time will tell for sure whether Dr Flaxman’s assertions are correct about only being at the start of the pandemic.

  7. Do these guys at Imperial ever know when to just shut up!
    Their input assumptions are junk so they get junk results.
    Re the article above, I am reminded of times I employed external consultants to complement internal people. Often the best advice was in a pub quiety with the retired bloke who had been around the block, didn’t need to prove he was ‘clever’ and sniffed BS from a mile away. These equivalent people have been ignored by the idiot computer infatuated fools supposedly running the country.

  8. JimW, one thing I thought is interesting, but not surprising, is that the BBC reported Imperial College’s latest pronouncements but haven’t reported Karl Friston’s claims that the susceptible population may be quite low for Covid-19. The worrying thing is that even if IC’s claims about being at the start of the pandemic turn out to be wrong, the government will probably still consult them if we encounter any further novel viruses.

  9. Excellent article! Strange thing about Groupthink is that its harmful effects have been known for a long time — think Bay of Pigs in Cuba, or the WWI Schlieffen Plan, or keep going further back in time. Yet we human beings keep making the same mistakes.

    Pretty much like we know from others’ experience that governments printing money leads eventually to hyper-inflation and societal collapse or war. Yet almost every government in the world today has convinced itself that ‘this time is different’.

  10. Great article. Imperial do seem to be stuck in group think and now desperate attempts to ‘prove’ they weren’t responsible for further unnecessary mass fatalities and economic collapse, but – I fear – they were. There needs to be a little Nuremberg. This may be dawning on them..

  11. That’s Irving L. Janis, not “Irving J Lanis”.

    Basic sloppy errors like that damage the argument, no matter how sound it may otherwise be.

  12. One thousand apologies Rick. Hope you feel better soon. Errors are human some are put in to see who reads it! I am reminded of a rock band who included that they only wanted brown M&Ms (confectionary Rick and it could be they wanted only green so the story may be invalid, sorry). This detail was hidden amongst many things in their contract rider. Why you may ask? Because the tour manager only needed to look for the brown M&Ms to be assured that rider had been read fully.

  13. Good article. On the subject of bias, mentioned at the top, we might consider the apparently widespread proclivity for maximal intervention. According to this bias, more conservative approaches – cautious of unintended consequences – are ironically considered “irresponsible”. Coupled with groupthink – the invested resistance to dissent – the results aren’t pretty.

  14. They assumed they were dealing with Spanish Flu II: lots of young healthy people affected, for whom a ventilator might work as a last resort. But it is not: it affects the old, the soon to be dying, for most it is not as deadly, nor infectious as anticipated. But still they persist, the facts have changed but not the plan.

  15. Tom: “Good article. On the subject of bias, mentioned at the top, we might consider the apparently widespread proclivity for maximal intervention. According to this bias, more conservative approaches – cautious of unintended consequences – are ironically considered “irresponsible”. Coupled with groupthink – the invested resistance to dissent – the results aren’t pretty.”

    The bias towards maximal intervention only happened in the UK when there was panic. Reading the SAGE meetings it’s clear that the initial bias was in favour of the virus being no threat and doing nothing.

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