In addition to its unmatched ability to fight and win wars, the United States Army has one great and abiding strength: PowerPoints. I’m beginning to think that officers are losing the ability to communicate without the use of that vile Microsoft product. But in the avalanche of slides, occasionally one can stumble across real wisdom.
Recently, I found myself in an excellent briefing on the perils of groupthink (which is far less of a problem in the Army than one might think in such a hierarchical organization . . . in part because the Army is actually diverse). As a slide listing the “Eight Symptoms of Groupthink” flashed on the screen, I grabbed a pad and immediately wrote them down:
- Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.
- Collective Rationalization: Members discredit and explain away warnings contrary to group thinking.
- Illusion of Morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.
- Excessive Stereotyping: The group constructs negative sterotypes of rivals outside the group.
- Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.
- Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.
- Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group’s decision; silence is seen as consent.
- Mindguards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.
If that doesn’t describe the university environment, I don’t know what does. In fact, it presents a near-perfect explanation of how faculties and administrations that are full of otherwise brilliant individuals can engage in grotesque and obvious constitutional violations and react with seemingly genuine shock when challenged. The illusion of morality combined with the illusion of invulnerability seems to be particularly characteristic of the speech-code mentality. If one is convinced of the rightness of one’s cause and feels no day-to-day challenge to one’s authority (either actual or moral), then abuse of power follows as night follows day.
The other intriguing aspect of the list is the extent to which groupthink depends upon the dissenters who do exist voluntarily holding their tongues. In other words, groupthink can’t survive just a few people willing to cowboy up.