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Victims of Groupthink

Groupthink prevails when the "need to conform" is operating. It is believed that Groupthink was operating during the "Bay of Pigs." There are other situations where Groupthink is thought to have been operating, including mass suicides and juries delivering illogical verdicts. Similarly, in "The Abilene Paradox," people end up going where they do not want to go, because they think the others want to go there and failed to express their honest preferences. In Groupthink, what is achieved is a false sense of consensus. Irving Janis in his book Victims of Groupthink originated the term groupthink. It is considered a disease of healthy groups, making them inefficient, unproductive, and irrational. Janis identifies a number of causes including: cohesiveness, working in isolation, biased leadership, and decisional stress.

After Kennedy got elected, Eisenhower saw that he was briefed on the upcoming Bay of Pigs operation. President Kennedy was briefed on the Agency's plans weeks before he took office, and had not raised objection to them. Once he was in office, planning for the invasion continued. On 10 March 1961, Dulles provided a detailed briefing to the CIA subcommittee of the HASC on the Agency's operational activities against Castro: its efforts to mount a propaganda campaign, organize the Cuban resistance parties, and train a paramilitary force to invade the island. He said the paramilitary force numbered about a thousand Cubans and had its own "air force."22Although several members wondered how an army of 1,000 exiles could beexpected to defeat a Cuban army of 200,000, Dulles replied that he expected the exiles to "light the fuse" that would spark a general uprising on the island.

Agency records do not reflect that the Agency's other subcommittees were briefed in advance, but Legislative Counsel Warner later told Professor Barrett that the leaders of the CIA subcommittees in the Senate would also have been told. Barrett also writes that Senator Fulbright, the chairman of the SFRC, was brought into the operation by the president. Hearing rumors of the administration's intentions, Fulbright had written Kennedy a personal letter attempting to persuade him not to let the operation go forward. Reacting to the letter, Kennedy invited Fulbright to a meeting at the State Department in early April 1961, where he was allowed to express his misgivings personally.

In the Bay of Pigs episode, President Kennedy was still new in his job, and he was dealing with an awkward fact his administration had inherited from the previous one - -namely, the existence of a force of Cuban exiles who were being trained by the CIA and who had-been assured that they would be supported by the US in an invasion of Cuba. His first omission was in not providing direction for the advisory task group he formed; he never clarified whether the objectives were (a) to dispose of the political problem of the increasingly ready, impatient, and visible Cuban exile force; or (b) to accomplish some foreign policy objective vis-a-vis Cuba.

From the perspective of effective leadership, the President:

  1. failed to communicate to the task force an expectation that members were collectively accountable for the team's product;
  2. failed to diagnose and remedy the consequences of the large size of the group and its changing composition from meeting to meeting;
  3. failed to diagnose and deal with problems caused by the heterogeneity of the team, especially the fact that members representing one faction (the CIA and the military) were in possession of more information (and had a somewhat different foreign policy orientation) than other taskforce members;
  4. failed to specify roles, encourage norms, and set standards that would encourage members to candidly express their own views nd challenge assumptions made by others; and
  5. failed to ensure that members of the task force other than himself took an overall national perspective; instead, each faction was allowed to advocate its own agenda throughout the life of the group.

In the Bay of Pigs case, the group product ultimately was judged poor by both the President and historians; moreover, the immediate effect of the groupexperience and the outcome was divisive for the group and demoralizing for individuals. The drive for consensus among Kennedy's advisors was believed to have precluded crucial information from being discussed, and has been blamed for the invasion's failure. The flawed decision of President Kennedy and his advisors to authorize the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba is the example commonly used to illustrate the phenomenon of groupthink. Group-think is characterized by excessive efforts to reach agreement, and a strong need for group consensus that can override the group's ability to make the most appropriate decision. Symptoms of groupthink include group members' tendency to (i) believe the group to be more invulnerable than it is; (ii) rationalize the group's decisions and believe stereotypes about its enemies; and (iii) feel increasing pressure to agree with others in the group).

The Department of State's apparent failure effectively to coordinate the administration's response to the Bay of Pigs crisis in early 1961 led to a series of measures aimed at providing the President with better independent advice from the government. It also sparked the NSC process to reenter the arena of monitoring the implementation of policy. The most important step in this direction was the establishment of the Situation Room in the White House in 1962.

President Kennedy said that if the press had printed what it knew beforehand about the Bay of Pigs invasion plans, that catastrophe in Cuba could have been avoided.

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:03 ZULU