March 11th, 2017

Social science observers of a presidential administration: then and now


Historians count within their profession a subset who specialize in analyzing and critiquing the efficacy of U.S. Presidents. It’s less likely that social scientists apply their specialty to how successfully presidential administrations operate. That has certainly changed with Trump stepping into the role.

Evaluating how Trump’s habits and high self-regard can undermine his personal success, and in turn, quash hopes for a compassionate and caring federal government, has been the focus of many clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health professionals. The running commentary (and pseudo-diagnoses) by professionals who have no access to personally testing and interviewing Trump is said to violate the “Goldwater Rule” adopted in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association after the failed presidential candidacy of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. The movie Dr. Strangelove was released in the campaign year.

It seems an article (Fact magazine, Sept-Oct 1964) exploring the mind of candidate Goldwater who held then-radical ideas contained results of a poll of 2100 psychiatrists, of whom 1,189 considered Goldwater unfit for office. Goldwater sued and won in court but only awarded $1. He did receive $75,000 in punitive damages. He sued for $1 million. Fact stopped publishing in 1967.

This historical self-imposed norm held among mental health types until Trump showed an inability to control impulsive behavior from the very start of his term in office. Since then, armchair analysts — some mental health professionals, lay public critics, and media commentators — have freely commented on Trump’s personality and behavioral shortcomings.

The justification for putting aside the Goldwater rule is that the ethical obligation to alert the public to potential harm from Trump’s conduct is more important than sitting on the sidelines and not sharing what can be inferred from his public misconduct. Two professors of psychiatry cry danger over Trump’s inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Before Goldwater, there was president John Kennedy, elected in 1960. He famously invited the “best and the brightest” to join his cabinet. Author David Halberstam adopted the phrase as title for his 1993 book that recounted the historical hubris that drove American foreign policy in Southeast Asia in the 1960’s. The phrase referred to the highly educated graduates of the most prestigious universities.

Yale social psychologist Irv Janis undertook a contemporaneous analysis of the Kennedy team’s decision-making processes. Janis studied small group behavior. He wondered how the best and brightest could have been “taken in by such a stupid, patchwork plan as the one presented to them by the CIA representatives.” CiA director Allen Dulles carried over from the previous Eisenhower administration. The postponed invasion of Cuba to oust Fidel Castro who rose to power in 1959 was executed on the advice of Dulles only three months after JFK’s inauguration in 1961.

To Janis, the Bay of Pigs fiasco demonstrated that the need to show consensus, unanimity of the “team,” could overcome intelligence. Janis revised George Orwell’s term doublethink from the novel 1984 to be “groupthink.” Observations of the JFK team and other disasters stemming from group decisions made when facing strong external threats led to his book in 1982. At the individual level, groupthink pressures, stronger and different than simple conformity, result in a person’s “deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments.”

Groupthink is typically an affliction of a team. Teams are groups comprised of like-minded individuals. This is especially true of political teams. Typically the leader demands loyalty and members oblige in exchange for anticipated future benefits of team membership.

A team that suffers groupthink:
– overestimates its own invulnerability
– believes in the inherent morality of the group
– has a closed mind on issues — it can collectively rationalize everything it does
– because of ingroup strength (us), stereotypes are held about outgroup others (them)
– censors its members — no dissent tolerated, direct pressure applied
– has the illusion of unanimity
– self-appointed mind guards to ensure no “bad news” becomes known

Evidence of groupthink-tainted decisions:
– inadequate information search techniques
– selective biases in reviewing input
– poorly defined or incorrect “problem” to solve
– few alternatives considered; rejected alternatives not reconsidered
– risks of implementation not considered
– failure to create contingency plans

Eminent social psychologist Phil Zimbardo believes that a key lesson about groupthink involves when and if leaders speak. If they speak first, the team is impaired because all subsequent contributions will be tailored to magnify the leader’s position, not to challenge it. Powerful, aggressive and bullying leaders can be certain they get their way. Unfortunately, the quality of the decisions made will likely be poor. And people affected by those decisions can be hurt.

The Janis version of groupthink was applied in the post-tragedy investigation of the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle during its launch in 1986. The investigatory Rogers Commission was educated about the role of flawed decisions made under strong pressure from president Reagan to launch the shuttle after many delays. The launch was green-lighted by NASA on a cold day when it should not have been claiming the lives of seven astronauts. It seems the NASA team ignored warnings from engineers at a contracting firm who thought the weather might affect the launch. It was gadfly physicist Richard Feymann who applied groupthink to the decisions made. In the report (p.4), how NASA ignored the information it should have relied upon is cited. Notably, the politicians rejected the conclusion of the experts.

Groupthink and the Trump Clan

To characterize the antics of the Trump administration (at the its 50-day mark) as prone to groupthink is an understatement. Yes. The phenomenon applies well. There is a demanding boss at the top accustomed to getting his way.

It is unfortunate for the nation that coupled with the strong-man unilateral decision maker, the Trump is a cadre of sycophants unlikely to tell the boss he is wrong. Hell they can’t even get him to stop his nonsensical tweeting. This is a group lacking courage.

To complicate matters further, the most significant part of the Trump team is family. It’s a clan. It’s a family-owned enterprise. And as bullied targets know well, no one from the outside can come between blood relatives to introduce “bad news” or dissent. A reasonable person might hope Congressional Republicans would offset Trump’s craziness, but they’ve chosen to be enablers delighted to have someone to sign into law their cruel plans for poor, sick, disabled and disadvantaged Americans.

Sadly, as long as Trump remains in power, we can expect a steady stream of poorly conceived proposals and programs suffering from a lack of critical reflective thought by people with divergent perspectives.

The confrontation of insanity in the White House clearly has to come from the People and oppositional institutions.

Or is it Chaos vs. groupthink?

To be explored next.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, March 11th, 2017 at 5:49 pm and is filed under Commentary by G. Namie, Social/Mgmt/Epid Sciences. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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