The UK response to covid-19 has been beset by a series of organisational failures. Among many other things, the UK government imposed restrictions too late in March 2020 and, failing to learn from this, went on to repeat the mistake several times. It was too slow to develop a test and trace system and, when it finally did, it was too centralised and divorced from local public health systems. It never provided adequate support for self-isolation. It failed to control the country’s borders in ways that would help slow the international spread of the virus.
In this context there is an urgent need for a proper public inquiry in which witnesses are cross-examined under oath so that we can understand why these failures occurred and what must be done to prevent them recurring. But none is in the offing. Instead, we have had the political theatre of Dominic Cummings giving testimony before the Social Care and Science and Technology Committees of the House of Commons. During his seven hours of evidence, Cummings repeatedly invoked one central explanation for all that went wrong: groupthink. He used the term 15 times to explain all of the failures identified above—and others besides. “Groupthink”, he claimed, was responsible for decisions that meant “tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die” 
Is Cummings right? Does groupthink provide the answers we need? Or is it a concept that obscures the real reasons for the government’s dire response?
The term “groupthink” was first coined by Irving Janis (1972) in the process of seeking to explain the US’s failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.  Those planning the operation—President Kennedy and key members of his key administration—radically underestimated the capabilities of Fidel Castro and presupposed that their foes would be inept and irresolute. They ignored the warnings of those who challenged their assumptions. As a consequence, the invasion backfired on the Americans. The invading force was surrounded within two days, captured, and publicly interrogated. To underscore its humiliation, the US was forced to pay $53m in aid before they were released. Later that year, Che Guevara sent a note to Kennedy thanking him: “Before the invasion the revolution was weak. Now it is stronger than ever” 
Janis defined groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” For him, events like the Bay of Pigs invasion revealed a general truth about the problems of group decision making. In groups, he argued, social motives (the desire for acceptance) prevail over epistemic motives (the desire to have accurate knowledge of the world). And the more tight-knit (cohesive) the group, the truer this will be. It follows that the only way to ensure that a group makes good decisions is to break it up: to introduce outsiders, to appoint devil’s advocates, to dispute group norms, to create division.
Janis’s ideas very quickly became popular both within and beyond the academic world.  Not least, this is because they chime with a strong anti-collectivism which developed through the period of industrialisation.  A political fear of the newly emergent “masses” and their potential power in combination to challenge the established order was translated into a moral and cognitive hierarchy which placed the individual (as good and rational) above the collective (as bad and irrational). In this sense, groupthink stands in a long line of psychological constructs and theories which embody these fears of groups.
But the popularity of the idea is not just down to ideology. It sketches out a phenomenon that is familiar to all of us whereby people cherish acceptance and seek consensus in a group and are not willing to challenge its prevailing position even when they believe it is at odds with reality.
The problem, however, lies less in how Janis describes the phenomenon than in how he explains it and also the strategies he recommends for avoiding it. In particular, the notion that group cohesion undermines effective decision making simply does not stand up to empirical scrutiny. Overall, there is little relation between the cohesion of a group and the effectiveness of its decision making.  Moreover, in many cases, success is achieved not despite cohesion and consensus, but because of it.
More generally, it is clear that a sense of consensus, of agreement and mutual support is critical for groups to generate the sustained commitment necessary to carry through difficult projects even against the scepticism or overt opposition of outsiders.  In other words, group success depends not only on making the right decisions, but also upon being sufficiently motivated and empowered to see them through. This is especially the case for subordinated groups—which is why solidarity is so important to them.
Second, it is clear that not all groups exclude debate and reality-testing, and they do not necessarily do so to a greater degree the more cohesive they become. Many tight-knit groups embrace discussion and difference. They value criticism and self-criticism and they define loyalty in terms of articulating problems rather than remaining silent.  It follows that groups which develop critical cultures and norms—in which acceptance is secured by speaking up in disagreement rather than by expressing silent agreement—are less likely to succumb to groupthink.
The corollary, though, is that when groups do exhibit “groupthink” characteristics that too must be understood in terms of the culture of the group in question rather as the expression of a generic group processes. Thus, a range of studies point to the fact that groups which value consensus are less likely to heed dissonant voices than those which value critical thought. 
The same goes for group goals. Thus, having re-analysed official records, Kramer argues that Kennedy’s failure in the Bay of Pigs invasion derived from the fact that his fundamental concern was more with the popularity of his policies than with their effectiveness and that this influenced his evaluation of options.  Accordingly, he concludes that the fiasco was more a matter of “politicothink” than of groupthink.
In addition to the way in which overall group culture impacts the overall tendency to embrace difference, it is also important to consider how particular group beliefs impact on the willingness of group members to question particular pieces of information. Here the evidence suggests that they are less likely to challenge some claims than others. Specifically, they are less likely to challenge claims that fit with group stereotypes and broader ideologies than with other types of claim.
All these arguments point to the central importance of leadership in the quality of group decision making. If group norms and goals and stereotypes and ideologies are so important, then how do leaders define goals and hence determine the criteria by which good and bad outcomes will be defined? How do they shape group norms, and do they view criticism (especially of themselves) as a sign of loyalty or of treachery? To what extent do they invoke group stereotypes and ideologies as a basis for evaluating evidence and constraining discussion? The quality of leadership is always important to group outcomes and never more so than in a crisis [11-13]
So, returning to the present covid crisis, the irony of Cummings’s invocation of “groupthink” is that it actually serves to exonerate those he aims to accuse. In suggesting that the many failures of the covid response derived from something inherent in the psychology of cohesive groups, the members of the group cannot be held accountable for their decisions. Just as the claim that violence is inherent in the male psyche and that “boys will be boys” serves to excuse the perpetrators of sexual violence, so too the claim that irrationality is inherent to collective processes and that “groups will be groups” serves to excuse the UK Government for its disastrous handling of the pandemic. 
To put it slightly differently, the concept of groupthink obscures the political dimension of group decision making. It takes the spotlight off the leadership of Boris Johnson, the political culture he presided over in 10 Downing Street, and the ideology of his administration. How effective was Johnson in framing open and critical debate which considered multiple alternatives? To what extent did he prioritise doing what was effective in the longer term over what was politically expedient and what he thought was popular with the public in the short term? To what extent did ideologies of paternalism shape his assumptions about the public response to “lockdown,” of orientalist racism his belief that Britain should eschew East Asian restrictions, of anti-welfarism his refusal to countenance support for self-isolation?
All these are critical questions for a public inquiry if we are to understand why the UK has had one of the highest death rates in the world combined with the worst economic outcome amongst the G7 countries.  All these questions are ruled out by using groupthink as an explanation. In short, the concept of groupthink fails to provide answers to the questions that we most need to ask. Furthermore, the broad-brush anti-collectivism it encourages is precisely what we need to avoid if we want to do better in the future.
Stephen Reicher, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St. Andrews.
John Drury, School of Psychology, University of Sussex.
S. Alexander Haslam, School of Psychology, University of Queensland.
Competing interests: SR and JD participate in the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and/or its subgroups and in Independent SAGE. SR participates in the advisory group to the Scottish chief medical officer. All authors are writing in a personal capacity.
- BBC News (2021). Dominic Cummings: Thousands died needlessly after Covid mistakes. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-57253578
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