Using the Challenger Disaster to illustrate the 8 symptoms of groupthink

When Yale research psyhcologist Irving Janis coined the term "groupthink" in 1972, he identified eight symptoms of the pathology: the "illusion of invulnerability"; a "belief in the inherent morality of the group"; "collective rationalization"; "out-group stereotypes"; "self-censorship"; the "illusion of unanimity"; "direct pressure on dissenters" and "self-appointed mindguards."

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster is one of the most studied disasters in history; University of Washington psych prof Jacob Leonesio uses it as a way to illustrate groupthink for his intro to psych course in a neat little explanation that shows how groupthink led the Challenger team to launch a spacecraft that many of them knew was not safe to launch.

6. Illusion of Unanimity. NASA managers perpetuated the fiction that everyone was fully in accord on the launch recommendation. They admitted to the presidential commission that they didn’t report Thiokol’s on-again/off-again hesitancy with their superiors. As often happens in such cases, the flight readiness review team interpreted silence as agreement.

7. Direct Pressure on Dissenters. Thiokol engineers felt pressure from two directions to reverse their ‘‘no-go" recommendation. NASA managers had already postponed the launch three times and were fearful the American public would regard the agency as inept. Undoubtedly that strain triggered Hardy’s retort that he was ‘‘appalled" at Thiokol’s recommendation. Similarly, the company’s management was fearful of losing future NASA contracts. When they went off-line for their caucus, Thiokol’s senior vice president urged Roger Lund, vice president of engineering, to ‘‘take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat."

8. Self-Appointed Mindguards. ‘‘Mindguards" protect a leader from assault by troublesome ideas. NASA managers insulated Jesse Moore from the debate over the integrity of the rocket booster seals. Even though Roger Boisjoly was Thiokol’s expert on O-rings, he later bemoaned that he ‘‘was not even asked to participate in giving input to the final decision charts."

Symptoms of Groupthink [Jacob Leonesio/University of Washington]

(via Four Short Links)