For many people the recent warmongering by North Korea, with its threat to dispatch inter-continental ballistic missiles to the U.S island of Guam, brought back nervous memories of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Crises like these can incite brinksmanship at its most dangerous, where a single miscalculation by a volatile adversary could threaten the entire world. But why is the regime in Pyongyang taking such risks? In any conflict with the USA, it would doubtless be destroyed, along with the country that it governs so cruelly.
It is, of course, impossible to access the thinking of such a secretive regime, but we can be sure that it is autocratic and that its leader, Kim Jong-un, is unlikely to brook dissent. After all, in February 2017 he is believed to have ordered the killing of his brother, Kim Jong-nam, a critic of the regime, at a Malaysian airport. In 2013 he had his uncle, Jan Song-thaek, executed for alleged treachery. Intolerance of opposition is at the heart of groupthink – a phenomenon identified by the psychologist Irving Janis more than forty years ago. The worry is that groupthink can lead to irrational and dangerous risk taking.
Janis described groupthink after studying a number of calamitous decisions by the US government, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 –which, arguably, led directly to the Cuban missile crisis. He found that decision making groups, where there is pressure to conform to the prevailing view, or that of a directive leader, can develop illusions of invulnerability, excessive optimism and a belief in the group’s inherent morality, irrespective of what it plans to do. Rivals and enemies are stereotyped as evil, weak and stupid so any threat they seem to pose is minimised.
This departure from reality is fostered by members of the group collectively rationalising what is being proposed -rather than subjecting proposals to a critical evaluation. Any potential doubters are encouraged to minimise the importance of their concerns and counter arguments and remain silent. The group’s overconfidence is exacerbated by so-called mindguards who filter information to ensure that members only receive messages consistent with their favoured course of action. Groupthink thrives when the group is insulated and when it perceives itself to be under attack from an outside source. The sanguine illusions it creates can therefore act as a coping mechanism to assuage anxiety and tensions.
Many other examples of groupthink have been identified in the years since Janis’s first study. NASA’s huge risky decision to launch the Challenger space shuttle on 28 January 1986, despite the fact that the vehicle’s rubber O-rings had not been tested in temperatures as low as those that prevailed that morning, has been blamed on the phenomenon. The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launching when an O-ring failed.
Similarly, groupthink may have been responsible for the collapse of Swiss Air, and the troubles of British Airways and Marks and Spencer, in the 1990s. The last two had previously been considered ‘darlings of the stock exchange’. For Marks and Spencer’s senior managers this served only to intensify their perceptions of invulnerability and their disdain for dissenting voices.
Good decision-making involves searching for alternative courses of action and testing these to see how they fare when the arguments favouring them are challenged in open critical debate. It involves a willingness to search for new information and a careful examination of the risks that each option might carry.
While we have no direct knowledge of Pyongyang’s machinations, the classic precursors and symptoms of groupthink appear to be writ large. And that may explain the regime’s alarming and potentially suicidal threats.