In the seven hours of evidence he gave at the Houses of Commons, Dominic Cummings mounted a systematic attack on the decisions of the government and its scientific advisory groups during the pandemic. These decisions, he repeatedly suggested, were a result of “groupthink”. Cummings used the term 15 times (and his questioners used it a further seven). It was applied to the government in general, to the Department of Health and to Sage. It was used to explain the delay in understanding the threat posed by the virus, in locking down, in closing borders, in building a testing system, in developing vaccines – in fact, according to Cummings, groupthink was the culprit for pretty much all the failures of decision-making that led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
As a result, the term – a behavioural science concept – is becoming as familiar to people as spike proteins or the R rate. Yet there is a key difference. Groupthink is a highly contested concept in psychology that is now viewed with considerable scepticism by those who research group behaviour. It misrepresents how often groups make poor decisions, why groups make poor decisions and how to stop groups making poor decisions. So, while you can certainly agree with Cummings that the government made many disastrous decisions during the pandemic, the notion of groupthink obscures the real group psychology at work.
The term was first introduced by the Yale psychologist Irving Janis, through his analysis of decision-making during the US invasion of Cuba in April 1961 – the so-called Bay of Pigs fiasco. The failure of the US invasion was due to the uncritical acceptance of a deeply flawed plan. This was rooted in a series of stereotypic assumptions about Fidel Castro and the Cubans as inept and weak. When critics pointed out the problems with these assumptions, their criticisms were simply ignored.
Janis concluded that what happened in the Bay of Pigs was not unique. His diagnosis of “groupthink” chimed with a longstanding view in psychology (and society at large) that believes group psychology can subvert or overturn individual rationality. “Members of any small cohesive group tend to maintain esprit de corps by unconsciously developing a number of shared illusions and related norms that interfere with critical thinking and reality testing”, Janis wrote.
According to this view, groupthink is not a feature of particular people in a group but of the psychological consequences of “groupness”; the more cohesive and integrated the group, the more that groupthink will occur. The only viable solution is therefore to loosen or break up the group: divide it, challenge its norms, introduce outsiders.
Very quickly, though, critics pointed to examples showing that the features of groupthink don’t always lead to negative outcomes, and that not all groups exhibit the features of groupthink. Moreover, when they do, this isn’t just due to a general desire to be accepted. It involves a consideration of the specific goals and specific norms of specific groups.
Sometimes we accept a judgment because it fits with a particular stereotype we hold (as in the Bay of Pigs); sometimes we value others’ judgments because we have more general norms of deference; sometimes we agree with others because cohesion is the goal of our particular group. But equally there are many groups where disagreement and debate are encouraged, and where consensus is second to accuracy. This brings to mind the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who insisted that patriotism (by which she meant an investment in any group) is impossible “without permanent opposition and criticism”.
These issues with the idea of groupthink are reflected in the problems with Cummings’ testimony. On the one hand, he implies that all groups involved in the response were equally myopic. So, for instance, he accuses the behavioural scientists in the SPI-B advisory group (in which we both participate) of uncritically opposing restrictions on the grounds that they were alien to the British psyche. Aside from the fact that a paper published by SPI-B in March last year explicitly rejected this idea, the notion that some 30 psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and other social scientists could quietly agree on anything – let alone racist tropes of oriental passivity and western agency – is quite frankly laughable. SPI-B is a far from unique example of what Arendt describes, where the group’s acceptance of an individual depends more on disagreement than agreement.
On the other hand, by blaming the myopia of some groups on groupthink, Cummings lets them off the hook. If some of the government’s disastrous decisions were really the result of groupthink in the classic sense, then ministers could not be held accountable for them; according to this reading, they too would be victims. The use of “groupthink” to explain these failures ignores the particular culture of various groups and (perhaps most significantly) how the stereotypes and ideologies embraced by these groups – of laissez-faire individualism, anti-welfarism and paternalism – may have stopped them from taking the necessary interventions to control Covid-19.
By representing failures as the outcome of the psychological nature of groups, “groupthink” hides their political basis. In the end, Cummings’ use of “groupthink” obscures more than it reveals. It points us in exactly the wrong direction for understanding and rectifying the government’s many mistakes. Perhaps this is because these derive (at least in part) from ideologies to which Cummings himself subscribes – starting with his elitist anti-collectivism. After all, his whole narrative was a morality play in which evil was represented by the self-deluding group and good by the occasional brilliant individual who saw through this veil of illusion.
And as for groupthink itself, well: one of the more trenchant critiques of the idea suggests that the uncritical acceptance of this concept, despite all the evidence against it, is possibly the only convincing example of groupthink. If we are to understand the many failures of this government and avoid them in the future, it’s critical that we aren’t tricked by the illusion of groupthink.