ON THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MORAL COGNITION AND RESISTANCE TO ERRONEOUS AUTHORITATIVE AND GROUPTHINK DEMANDS DURING A MILITARY INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS GAMING EXERCISE
Jeffrey Bordin, Ph.D.
Paper to be
presented at the Joint Services Conference On
In the late 1930’s naval officers responsible for monitoring the construction of the U.S. Navy’s torpedoes discovered serious and widespread manufacturing defects. However, they acquiesced to political and organizational pressures to ignore the discrepancies. Unwilling to jeopardize their military careers, they took no corrective action (cf. Morison, 1963, pp. 12-13).
On the morning of
This paper is concerned
with the study of
dysfunctional leadership, judgment, command decision-making and intelligence analysis
cognitive closure and acquiescence to erroneous authoritative demands. The primary focus of this study concerns the
political and military dimensions at the bureaucratic decision-maker level. The first part of this research project
consists of a critical review of various pathologies that operate in
governmental decision-making and leadership, with an emphasis on groupthink,
decision-making rigidity and moral exclusion.
The second portion involves an experimental analysis of decision-making
Moral exclusion can be defined as viewing certain groups as being outside the boundary within which moral values and rules of justice apply (Opotow, 1990). The mechanisms of such moral disengagement can include diffusing and displacing responsibility, distorting the negative consequences, moral justification, and assigning blame to or dehumanizing the victim (Bandura, 1990). In the present study, moral exclusion based on political ideology was studied (i.e., Communist vs. anti-Communist).
The experimental study
included 313 commissioned
Several social determinants have been related to decision-making rigidity. Groupthink, described by Janis (1971), is one such process that has been studied. One aspect of groupthink involves the suppression of critical thoughts as a result of the internalization of group norms. Common characteristics of the Groupthink mode of response include an illusion of invulnerability, rationalizing away warnings or contradictory information, a belief in the inherent morality of the group and its cause, stereotyping and underestimation of opponents, exerting strong social pressures to silence dissident group members, engaging in self-censorship, experiencing the illusion of group unanimity, and self-appointment of “mindguards” (i.e., group members who take it upon themselves to screen out information which conflicts with, or is in some way unpalatable to, the group’s doctrine or beliefs). Whyte (1989) has reported how group decision-making can further exacerbate the frequency and severity of escalation of a futile course of action.
One graphic example of
this process involved the deliberations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on whether
the air war in
Another case of mindguard behavior occurred immediately prior to the
Janis’ (1972) analyses of events which led up to Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, and the escalation of the Vietnam War point to how otherwise-competent decision-makers can become entrapped into a losing course of action through the Groupthink process. Janis found that when in the Groupthink mode, decision-makers would ignore or rationalize away new information that might call for a reconsideration of the original course of action taken.
A very similar process
seems to have been operating during the incident in the
effects and serious consequences of Groupthink are reflected in William
Kennedy’s (1983, p. 19) assessment of the performance of the
Susceptibility to the Groupthink Process
(1982) reported that formalized and complex organizational structures restrict
the ability of the organization to learn.
Historians have documented this tendency as being particularly prevalent
among military organizations (Fastaband, 1989).
Paul Kennedy (1987, p. 522) has shown how such “bureaucratic politics”
have seriously impeded
selective information processing and reporting is another tactic commonly
utilized during the Groupthink process.
This was reflected in the U.S. Navy’s reporting (and massive destruction
of evidence) concerning the gun-turret explosion aboard the U.S.S. Iowa in 1989 (Hall, 1990). Despite serious lapses in safety procedures, including
poor supervision, improper training, and the experimental use of a
prohibited mix of powder and shell (which had been stored in a grossly
improper and dangerous manner), the Navy chose to discount these factors. Instead, it launched an extensive character
assassination campaign against a sailor who was killed in the explosion as being responsible for the
blast, despite a complete lack of evidence to support such a claim (Thompson, 1989; Turque &
Sandza, 1989). The
A panel of psychologists who testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittees on Investigations and Policy sharply criticized the Navy’s investigation of the explosion. Representative Frank McCloskey called the Navy’s final report “almost scandalously flawed” (Moses, 1990, p. 20). A forensic psychologist stated that, “One had the impression that there was a decision to be made, and they used data to support that decision” (U.S. News & World Report, 1990, p. 29). The final congressional report cited several major flaws in the Navy inquiry (Long Beach Press-Telegram, 1990a). The Senate Armed Services Committee even resorted to contracting a private laboratory to investigate the explosion. The findings of this group of forensic scientists indicated that a technical error made by another sailor (who was performing his designated task for the first time), as well as a design fault in the powder bag were the most likely causes for the tragedy (Armed Forces Journal International, 1991; Nelson, 1990). However, the Navy has yet to make a retraction, or to apologize to the family of the deceased sailor it so completely and unjustly vilified.
The loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis during World War II and the subsequent courts-martial of its captain was another infamous case of
scapegoating (cf. Newcomb, 1958; Morison, 1963). Ranking military officials were aware that Japanese submarines
were operating in the
Evidence of inertia in strategic and tactical
planning is also a symptom of the groupthink process. Such was reflected on the part of both the
State and Defense Departments during the turmoil in
What is all the more
incredulous is that the barracks bombing included nearly an exact repetition of
events that had led up to the destruction of the
Examples of Moral
virulent anti-communism permitted him to ignore the most heinous of atrocities
and war crimes in countries with governments friendly to the
The former Bush Administration
followed a similar pattern of biased information processing. When members of the El Salvadoran military
brutally murdered six priests, a woman, and her child, President Bush accepted
President Christiani’s assertions that the Salvadoran government was not
its past human rights record. Bush’s
response to Christiani’s assurances was “Absolutely, I believe it” (Pear, 1989,
p. A14), despite massive evidence of the government’s culpability in this
atrocity (e.g., Bazar, 1990). Bush then
successfully thwarted efforts to restrict continued
example of selective information processing occurred when President Bush
discounted a CIA report warning of an Iraqi invasion of
Another example of denial and moral exclusion concerned the U.S. government’s inaction during the genocide in Cambodia; its protest of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia which finally overthrew the murderous and pathologically psychotic Khmer Rouge, and following this, the U.S.’s insistence that the Khmer Rouge was the only legitimate government of Cambodia, despite the millions of people it had just methodologically murdered (cf. Haas, 1991a, 1991b).
The U.S. State Department also has
demonstrated a propensity to distort history, and to ignore the most blatant of
human rights atrocities for the sake of national alliances and economic self-interests. For instance, it did this when it
proclaimed in 1982 that the evidence of the Turkish genocide against the Armenians in
the early part of this century was ambiguous-a ridiculous, immoral and
repugnant lie that is clearly disproved by its very own archives in addition to
multitudes of first-hand accounts by U.S. diplomats and other government officials and
relief workers stationed in Turkey at the time (cf. Davis, 1989; Smith,
1986; U.S. State Department, 1928; Wegner, 1919). Indeed, a recent volume of its official
record, ‘Foreign Relations of the
Organizational Attributes That Contribute
to Groupthink and Moral Exclusion
Many authors have discussed the relationship between organizational structure and personality variables. O’Day (1974) has reported how those with divergent perspectives have been discouraged and punished by superiors within authoritarian organizations. Masland and Radway (1967) described how authoritarian structured organizations would avoid exposing themselves to outside experts whose views or factual information may conflict with the organization own prevailing policies, methods, and doctrine. As an example, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman dismissed experts critical of the emphasis on big-deck nuclear aircraft carrier construction at the expense of a more balanced fleet as “trendy guys” and “armchair specialists” (U.S. News & World Report, 1986, p. 30). Such critics included former CIA Director Stansfield Turner, a retired admiral.
A report from the Army’s
Military History Institute reflects that this process continues. The report stated that the propensity to
“compromise personal integrity, to lie to superiors, and to do so shamelessly
in the certain knowledge that subordinates, peers and the very superiors they
sought to please would all know that they were lying has been corrosive in the
extreme” (Hadley, 1986, p. 245).
However, such behavior is rewarded.
Another Army study on this systemic pathology found that over two-thirds
of the 23,000 officers surveyed believed that “the officer corps is focused on
personal gain rather than selflessness” (Hadley, 1986, p. 185).
Self-censorship for fear of being perceived as disloyal is another cause of groupthink, and can extend to the highest levels of leadership. When certain members of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff considered resigning in protest over the way President Johnson and Secretary McNamara were directing the Vietnam War, as well as over McNamara’s misleading testimony to Congress in August, 1967, General Wheeler convinced the other members that such an action would be mutinous (Perry, 1989). Further, censorship of military officer’s non-official writing has long been in evidence (Thorsen, 1991). Congressman Andrew Ireland has commented that the suppression of negative information is a particularly widespread problem within the military bureaucracy (Los Angeles Times, 1990).
Holsti (1967), Hoyt (1990, pp. 17-19, 97, 100), Spanier (1988, p. 81),
and Volkman and Baggett (1989, pp. 92-93) cited the purging of numerous State
Department Foreign Service officers and military intelligence officers for
making controversial, yet accurate, intelligence forecasts involving criticisms
of the Chiang Kai-shek government and the imminent communist takeover of China. This purge included the firing of George
Kennan, who has since become one of the most respected figures in the
international studies field (Thomas, 1989).
Some of these analysts even faced fraudulent charges that they were
According to Spanier, a tragic consequence of this
massive exodus of independent thinkers soon followed. When
Similarly, William Kennedy (1983, p. 202) reported that there are few risk-takers among CIA analysts and their superiors because of the CIA methods of recruitment, selection, training, and promotion, and that this has proven to be a serious impediment to accurate intelligence assessments. Likewise, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation described the appointment process to the National Security Council as not emphasizing potential candidates who are creative or innovative (Gold, 1989). Smith (1988, pp. 599-600) reported similar concerns.
organizations have demonstrated a similar distaste for independent
thinkers. For instance, the
The are numerous historical examples of unconventional or independent leaders being purged from the armed services including General William Mitchell of the U.S. Army, who was court-martialed for his outspoken criticism of his superiors’ lack of understanding regarding air strategy and operations (Jablonski, 1971, p. xiv; Mason, 1976, pp. 90-91); Even Generals Eisenhower and Patton faced censure and possible court-martials for voicing their progressive ideas while they were junior officers (Berlin, 1990; Kingseed, 1990).
General Matthew Ridgway claimed that his most important role in the Army had been “to protect the mavericks” (Hadley, 1986, p. 165). Ridgway asserted that the careers of innovative, unorthodox officers were usually at risk stemming from the institutional rigidities characteristic of the military services. A graphic example of this was the bloodletting, which occurred during the McNamara years. Pentagon officers who dared to voice any disagreement to him or his cronies were ruthlessly purged. This policy yielded an inexhaustible supply of uniformed yes-men (Hadley, 1986, p. 142).
The numerous complaints from U.S. military officers regarding this process, published in the editorial sections of a number of military service periodicals, attest that this process fully continues (e.g., Colello, 1989; Herchak, 1989; Hittmeier, 1989; Mosier, 1989; Unger, 1989).
Radine (1977, pp. 1-33) has cited various techniques the military has employed to neutralize nonconformists and dissidents. The process of screening out progressive and flexible thinkers is exemplified by the dismissal of an U.S. Air Force officer. When questioned, this decorated and experienced officer reported that he would not launch a nuclear missile unless he thought that the order was legal, the circumstances required it, and that it was a rational, moral necessity. However, General Russell Dougherty, commander of the Strategic Air Command, wrote that “a disciplined response to authority, not a personal debate” was required and demanded, and that this officer was not fit for military service (Maszak, 1988). (Not surprisingly, an analysis of General Dougherty’s personal decision-making behavior demonstrated that it is heavily influenced by the groupthink process—Steiner, 1989.) Another case involved Colonel Jim Burton, who challenged the Army’s bogus testing and fraudulent reports on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He was also purged from the military (Smith, 1988, p. 165), as was General Hank Emerson who had the temerity to suggest that there were more important types of equipment other than the Bradley Fighting Vehicle that the Army should consider procuring first (Hackworth & Sherman, 1989, p. 285).
Ironically, Janowitz (1960, p. 151) reported that “rule-breaking” and unconventional military leaders have made a more substantial historical contribution than their more conventional counterparts. Also, Shalit (1981), in his study of the Israeli Army, reported that those personnel who had difficulty in accepting absolute conformity proved to be the more capable soldiers in combat. However, such behavior is often not rewarded, let alone even tolerated. Indeed, it was just such an officer who finally put a stop to the My Lai Massacre of 1968. When Hugh Thompson, a U.S. helicopter pilot, spotted the American soldiers diligently following their orders to murder some 500 unarmed civilians (mostly women and children), he landed his helicopter in between some of the survivors (who were hiding in a corpse-filled ditch) and the U.S. troops. He then ordered the soldiers, including a superior officer, to cease their attack and told his gunner to fire into them if they failed to obey. In the immediate aftermath, the U.S. Army did not award Warrant Officer Thompson or his crew (one of whom was killed in action days later) any medals for stopping this war crime. Quite the contrary, Hugh Thompson was initially at grave risk of being courts-martialed for his actions and was ostracized and eventually involuntarily discharged from the U.S. Army (although he was later reinstated at a much reduced rank, eventually retiring in the same warrant officer grade) (cf. Hersh, 1970; French, 1972; Walzer, 1974; Bilton & Sim, 1992). (It is interesting to note that numerous U.S. Army officers failed to properly investigate the initial reports of the My Lai Massacre and refuted and disparaged the few enlisted soldiers who came forth to report the atrocity—one of those officers was Major Colin Powell--Bilton & Sim, 1992, p. 213. Such diverse career paths provide a striking insight of the military culture.)
The enormously detrimental consequences stemming from dysfunctional leadership and flawed decision-making and intelligence analysis have been amply documented. The economic costs resulting from inflexibility in decision-making can be devastating to businesses. In the political and military realms, the magnitude of such economic losses can and does multiply at astronomical rates. But more importantly, the consequences of defective decision-making involved in failed foreign policies, and in military programs and strategies, can gravely threaten national and international security and therefore potentially involve catastrophic human costs. Because U.S. foreign policy and intelligence failure are all too often almost synonymous terms, because moral and ethical considerations are so often excluded from foreign policy and intelligence analysis deliberations, and because U.S. political and military leaders and intelligence analysts have so often proven incapable from telling a “good guy” from a “bad guy,” it was decided that the present study would specifically address these areas. Therefore, the psychological, social and organizational factors that contribute to elite decision-makers’ premature aggression, acquiescence to erroneous normative demands, obstinacy in maintaining false, preconceived notions, as well as propensity to engage in moral exclusion will all be empirically analyzed.
Related to the above, there is a serious lack of research examining moral courage or strength of character. This variable can be considered as the consistency between decision-makers’ personal judgment regarding the appropriateness of a given choice of action and the actual response finally selected after normative factors/pressures are incorporated into their deliberations (Linn, 1988). This resistance to normative pressures has been termed “personal consistency” (Blasi, 1983), “integrity” by Blasi (1980, 1983), and “the embodied self” by Lifton (1986, pp. 499-500). Kohlberg and Candee (1984) termed this bridge between personal beliefs, intervening social factors, and actual behavior as “ego strength.” Merari (1980, p. 283) suggested the usefulness of psychological research to examine government “decision makers and their ability to withstand domestic and international pressures upon taking momentary and unpopular decisions” in response to terrorist incidents. Therefore, the study contrasted participants who were exposed to social, political and organizational pressures to intervene prematurely with military force, with those who were not exposed to such external pressures. This, in effect, allowed for the examination of what factors contribute to the relationship between decision-makers’ personal beliefs and actual behavior after normative expectations are incorporated into their deliberations. What empirical research there is “does not reveal...tight consistency of behavior with personality in varying situations...” (Sears, 1987, p. 231). Unfortunately, such cognitive-structural considerations are generally lacking in decision-making research, perhaps stemming from “the absence of detailed conceptual elaboration regarding the function of ego strength” (Linn, 1988, p. 1165). (One study by Steele--1990--reported a strong tendency for journalists to acquiesce to organizational pressures when such demands conflicted with their own personal beliefs.) Therefore, a central purpose of the present study is to identify the effect of ethical cognition on decision-makers; both before and after normative considerations are introduced.
The study’s scenario
terrorist act that ultimately implicated an anti-Communist rebel group. Examined were officers’ propensities to continue
advocating support for this rebel group despite the evidence of their
culpability. Such moral exclusion on the
basis of a political body’s supposed anti-communism, or for the sake of “national
security interests,” seems to have become an inherent part of
Janis and Mann (1977)
have identified seven symptoms of defective decision-making. These consist of 1) gross omissions in
surveying alternatives; 2) gross omissions in surveying objectives; 3) failure
to examine major costs and risks of the preferred choice; 4) poor information
5) selective bias in processing information at hand; 6) failure to
reconsider originally rejected alternatives; and 7) failure to work out
detailed implementation, monitoring, and contingency plans. Herek, Janis, and Huth (1987) evaluated the
major crisis decisions made by
Unfortunately, there seems to be a paucity of empirical research
examining moral and ethical standards in political and military
decision-making. However, it seems reasonable that
decision-makers who utilize moral and/or ethical standards in explaining their
decision-making process will be more willing to avoid premature brinkmanship
behavior, as well as to initiate corrective action once they learn that their
original perspective and/or policy response taken in the first part of the scenario was
erroneous. This is supported by Anchor
(1972), who reported a correlation between use of moral judgment and reluctance
to employ aggression. It was also expected that respondents who report utilizing moral or
ethical concepts in
decision-making rationale most likely operate at a high or post-conventional stage of
moral reasoning (cf. Fogelman, 1987;
However, the use of such
moral/ethical terminology does not constitute a guarantee of the development,
understanding, or acceptance of the core ideals underlying such concepts
(Weiss, 1982). Indeed, what is perceived
as moral or immoral can involve gross distortions of such constructs. For instance, Kelman and Lawrence (1972) found that the
majority of American adults in their sample approved of Lt. Calley’s behavior
Military officers utilizing moral or ethical explanations of their deliberations and intelligence report recommendations should be less influenced by normative pressures since post-conventional moral reasoning has been shown to be more resistant to authoritative demands (Keasey, 1974; Linn, 1988). Also, Krebs (1967) reported a relationship between moral reasoning and ego strength (i.e., the propensity to carry out decisions that are derived from one’s moral outlook, irrespective of normative factors). Kohlberg’s (1981) theory of moral reasoning has demonstrated that decision-makers operating at post-conventional levels of reasoning are less susceptible to acquiescing to normative demands (Kohlberg & Candee, 1984, pp. 52-73). Batson (1989) conceptualized another type of pro-social value: valuing moral principles. He suggested that some people “develop beyond instrumental morality and come to value justice—or mercy or thoughtfulness—not because of the rewards or punishments they anticipate for compliance with this principle...but as an abstract principle in its own right” (p. 225).
Design of Study’s Fictional Crisis Scenario
Janis (1982, pp. 248-259) has identified a number of structural and situational conditions that determine whether groupthink will occur. Structural conditions include homogeneity of group members in ideology and social background, promotional leadership (i.e., when a leader reveals early in the deliberations a preferred policy alternative, especially in the absence of objective procedures for developing and evaluating alternatives), and group insulation from outside information. Situational conditions include group cohesiveness, crisis conditions or time stress in responding to an outside threat, a complicated and demanding decision problem, and recent group failure such as the unsatisfactory outcome of a prior decision (McCauley, 1989). The above characteristics were all designed into the groupthink condition in the present study, but no such normative influences were introduced in the non-groupthink condition. Another difference was that in the groupthink condition the burden of individual responsibility was removed; therefore, respondents should be more likely to be willing to aggress (Zimbardo, 1969, pp. 237-307). Thus, participants in the groupthink condition should demonstrate higher levels of defective decision-making (stemming from normative pressures and diminished personal accountability) than those officers in the non-groupthink condition. (See Appendix for the scenarios that established the groupthink and non-groupthink conditions.)
On a purposive sampling basis, the researcher personally approached military officers at air terminal on various military installations. The researcher, wearing his Coast Guard uniform, identified himself as a doctoral student in the field of international relations, working on his dissertation project, which involved a study of foreign policy decision-making. He stated that he was recruiting military officers to complete the questionnaire he had developed for the study, and asked if they would be interested in participating. He explained that this was a civilian research project being completed at a private college, and that it had no association with the military. Officers who agreed to participate were told that the questionnaire consisted of two parts: a social and political attitude questionnaire, and a fictitious international crisis situation that they would read and then write what they thought should be done, given the facts presented (participants were not told that there was a second half to the crisis situation until after they had completed the first half).
Participants were told that the study would take approximately 35 to 40 minutes to complete. Depending on the officers’ time restrictions, they either completed the questionnaire at that time, or an appointment was made for a more convenient time. Alternatively, officers who had approximately 10 minutes at that time to work on the questionnaire completed the first half of the crisis scenario. The researcher kept the portion of the questionnaire they had already completed, and they were given a stamped, self-addressed envelope to mail back the rest of the questionnaire (the second half of the crisis scenario as well as the political and social attitude section). In all, about one-third of the officers used the mail-back method. Participants were informed that if they were interested in a debriefing regarding the nature of the study, they should include their address so that the researcher could mail them an explanation. Demographic data (e.g., service branch, rank, age, time in service, etc.) that were collected for each portion of the instrument were used for matching the first part with the second.
The two variants of
low-intensity conflict are revolutionary and guerrilla insurgency, and
international terrorism (Shultz, 1989).
There has been a dramatic and continuing escalation of terrorist acts
since the 1960’s, in both volume and bloodshed (Jenkins, 1985a). Further, Jenkins (1985b) has reported that
terrorism will be utilized by both national and sub-national entities while
engaged in more traditional forms of warfare (i.e., conventional and
unconventional warfare). It was also the
investigator’s belief that it would only be a matter of time before the
The political climate
depicted in the groupthink condition was patterned after what transpired
following the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine.
The normative pressures presented in the study’s scenario were based on
those faced by President William McKinley.
Although personally not wanting a war with
There were two variations
to the scenario. In Condition 1, participants were
exposed to a non-groupthink situation.
That is, they received identical descriptions of the crisis situation,
but they were not informed of what anyone else thought should be done regarding
Therefore, the purpose here was to identify how moral cognition affected a participant’s willingness to go along with a decision-making group’s Othello error.
In order to achieve a
reasonable groupthink effect, the contents of the information presented in this
condition were tailored to the previously reported structural and situational
factors identified by Janis (1982) as being conducive to groupthink. In the fictional scenario, all immediate
group members were identified as
It should be specifically noted here that in regard to the groupthink condition, the normative pressures for conformity were stronger in the first half of the scenario. There, participants were made aware of the expectations of their superiors, colleagues, and the general public. In the second half of the scenario participants were only made aware of their subordinates’ judgments concerning what course of action to take.
Respondents’ written answers for each of the two parts (Part A and Part B of the scenario), were open-ended and given in paragraph form. This procedure followed the symbolic interactionist perspective that the form of behavioral response or social interaction should be a matter of empirical discovery rather than being fixed in advance. A content analysis was completed of the various policy choices/actions selected. The purpose here was to differentiate responses favoring quiet diplomacy (a “wait-and-see,” or get more intelligence information strategy), from those promoting the use of various levels of coercive diplomacy (emphasizing “the use of threats and the exemplary use of limited force...”—Craig & George, 1990, p. 197), and from those advocating outright military retaliation of various magnitudes. Part A responses were coded into 10 general categories representing differing levels of aggression (see Table 1). Two doctoral students completed these classifications. They achieved a reliability rate of 97% for the exact category with a test sample of 67 cases.
A series of paired comparison ratings was made between Part A categories, which quantified the relative levels of difference (along an aggression dimension) between each of the categories. In this process, three political science professors made a quantitative determination on a nine-point scale indicating the degree of aggression difference between the two paired categories for all possible
Categorization of Policy Responses
According to the Level of Aggression
_______________________________________________________________________Part A Assigned
Response Category Score
<![if !supportLists]>1. <![endif]>Evacuate remaining personnel. 0
Complain to the United Nations.
Acquire more intelligence
<![if !supportLists]>2.<![endif]> against country.
in area. Show of force.
enter country’s territorial
waters to recover and investigate
5. Initiate economic sanctions. 31.2
7. Establish a
8. Launch a military strike against 61.3
a single military target.
9. Launch military strikes on multiple 77.5
military targets and/or the
10. Declare war; invade with land 100.0
combinations of Part A categories
(i.e., a value of 9 indicated that the policy response in Column B was
extremely more aggressive than Column A; a value of 5 indicated there was no
difference in aggression between policy responses in Columns A and B; and a score
of 1 indicated that Column A was extremely more aggressive than Column B). All raters worked independently from the others. Inter-rater reliability was measured
aggression was assigned a value of 100. The remaining eight options were then located within the 100-point scale according to their corresponding total ratings. Such a quantitative measurement yielded a meaningful standardized interval value for each respective category. These values were used for subsequent statistical analyses (see Table 1).
Officers’ written answers for Part B, which concerned entrapment, were classified into specific categories of responses. Inter-rater reliability was 83% (there was generally more ambiguity in participant’s responses in the second half). See Table 2.
For initial policy aggression, various t-tests, f-tests, and chi-square tests were performed. These served to examine overall aggression, as well as the likelihood of officers not reporting moral/ethical reasoning to acquiesce to the social demands operationalized in the groupthink
Part B: Categories of Responses Measuring Rigidity
Original Recommendations Responses Score
1. Evacuate remaining personnel. Rigidity not 0
Acquire more intelligence data.
2. Build-up of
forces in region. Decrease buildup. 2
Maintain buildup. 3
Increase buildup. 4
Decrease threats. 2
Maintain threats. 3
Increase threats. 4
enter country's territorial Continue action. 3
waters to recover and
investigate debris from plane.
5. Initiate economic sanctions. End sanctions. 1
Decrease sanctions. 2
Maintain sanctions. 3
Increase sanctions. 4
anti-Communist rebel fighters. Decrease aid. 2
Maintain aid. 3
Increase aid. 4
7. Establish an
blockade. Continue blockade. 3
8. Launch a military strike End action. 1
against a single military Continue action. 3
target. Increase action. 4
9. Launch military strikes on End action. 1
multiple military targets Continue action. 3
and/or the capital city. Increase action. 4
10. Declare war; invade with End action. 1
land forces. Continue action. 3
condition, as compared to those who did. The dependent variable analyzed was the difference in levels of aggression in the policy recommendations made under groupthink versus non-groupthink conditions.
Groupthink was an important factor in predicting aggression, yielding a moderate impact (r = .23, beta = .20). Of the respondents in the groupthink condition, 40% favored military attack in contrast to only 15% of those in the non-groupthink condition. This suggests that some 25% of the military officers sampled would be likely to compromise their personal beliefs in order to satisfy organizational expectations under the level of pressure operationalized in the present study (which, given its paper-and-pencil nature, was arguably quite minimal).
Groupthink had a very large effect on decision-making rigidity when economic sanctions were initially recommended, (r = .60, beta = .58). In contrast, it had far less effect for the other response groups (which involved a higher degree of coercive diplomacy or military intervention).
Only 42 of the 313 military officers in the study specifically mentioned ethical or moral considerations during their deliberations. However, this variable was a significant predictor of not recommending a military attack (chi-square = 4.41, p<.04). Only 14% of officers utilizing such reasoning recommended a military attack versus 30% of those not reporting such considerations.
The effect of the groupthink condition on those utilizing moral and/or ethical reasoning was virtually non-existent, and in fact slightly in the nonconformity direction. The average aggression score in the non-groupthink condition for these officers was 23; in the groupthink condition it was 19. In contrast, for those participants not utilizing such reasoning, groupthink demonstrated a significant effect. In the non-groupthink condition the average aggression score was 24; in the groupthink condition it was 43. A 2-way ANOVA on these data revealed a significant difference, (F(1, 293) = 5.28, p=.03), indicating that officers manifesting moral/ethical cognition were more resistant to groupthink effects.
Similarly, 14% of those utilizing moral and/or ethical reasoning recommended military intervention in both the non-groupthink and groupthink conditions. In contrast, in the non-groupthink condition 15% of those not reporting moral/ethical cognition recommended military intervention. This rate of military intervention increased dramatically to 44% for those in the groupthink condition.
Figures 1 and 2 display the differential normative effects observed on policy aggression and military intervention, respectively.
Moral/ethical reasoning demonstrated a moderate effect in preventing decision-making rigidity for those officers who initially favored economic sanctions (r = -.34, p<.05), as well as those few who initially recommended a large-scale military attack (r = -.40, p<.01). Military officers who didn’t report moral or ethical considerations in their deliberations were twice as likely to engage in moral exclusion (by recommending continued support of the rebel terrorist group after they were implicated in the terrorist downing of the U.S. aircraft) as those who did mention such facto rs (18% vs. 9%). However, this difference was not
statistically significant (chi-square = 1.84, p=.17, ns). Thus, this hypothesis was not significantly supported.
The rarity with which officers in this study utilized moral or ethical principles is a rather unfortunate finding. It was interesting (and unfortunate) to note that not one of the sixteen O-6’s (Colonels/Navy Captains-those of the highest rank tested) in the present study reported any moral or ethical considerations during their deliberations. There was a greater tendency for military officers to engage in lawyering, to give parochial explanations (e.g., it would look bad for the military/nation to change its course of action; our leaders are more aware of what’s truly going on), or to exhibit decision-paralysis (i.e., passing the information on to higher authority but failing to provide any recommendation; waiting but not actively searching for more information; not utilizing any of the available intelligence data for any preliminary analyses, etc.).
Study participants rarely displayed cognition that was independent-oriented, principled, and qualitatively high. Research has demonstrated that organizational culture or climate influences aspects of an individual’s ethical considerations during decision-making (i.e., Singhapakdi, 1988; Wimbush, 1991). The military environment is perhaps not the most conducive for developing such psychological characteristics (i.e., Colby & Kohlberg, 1987, p. 350; Hoffman & Saltzstein, 1967). Indeed, officers who had already completed their first tour of duty were less affected by moral or ethical considerations. For military officers with 0-3 years time-in-service, this variable yielded a significant, moderate correlation with non-aggression (r = -.25, beta = -.21). It decreased to weak, non-significant levels for officers with between 4-9 years of service (r = -.17, beta = -.09), for officers with 10-19 years (r = -.13, beta = -.15), and for those with over 20 years of service (r = .02, beta = -.08).
Stemming from the paper-and-pencil nature of the groupthink manipulation, as well as the guaranteed anonymity/non-accountability of study participants, it would seem logical to assume that the normative pressures depicted in the present study were substantially less than those real-life social-organizational pressures that would be operating in a real-world situation. Thus, despite the substantial impact observed for the groupthink manipulation, the actual effects of such normative factors are probably much greater in real-life situations. Further, it is important to again reiterate that the groupthink pressures in the second part of the scenario examining entrapment were much less than in the first part. In the second part, study participants were only exposed to what their few subordinates thought of the new intelligence information, not what their superiors’ positions were.
Additional studies examining moral courage are needed. Multiple events have demonstrated that numerous military officers and intelligence analysts have lacked the personal resources to challenge their superior’s incorrect dictates or inaction. Such has led to tragic and unnecessary losses. A case study of the motivations, belief systems and level of moral development of those officials who have resigned to protest and bring attention to incorrect policies, actions or inactions would make for a valuable psychosocial study.
Research related to the effects of principled moral reasoning on normative rewards/sanctions would also be of value. A Josephson Institute of Ethics study on ethical behavior reports that there is “burgeoning evidence of moral backsliding” in American society (Wiscombe, 1990, p. D1). Indeed, there are inexhaustible examples of this in everyday life. It would be of value to identify the social and structural processes that discriminate against or otherwise deter individualistic, principled moral reasoning and reward sycophantic behavior.
The present study
examined officers’ propensities to continue advocating support for an
anti-communist rebel group despite its responsibility for a terrorist attack
against an aircraft full of Americans.
It would be interesting to extrapolate further what other sorts of
heinous actions would be tolerated in the name of political ideology or
General Omar Bradley (1989, p. 4) wrote “a leader should encourage the members of his staff to speak up if they think the commander is wrong.” However, in actual practice, such ideals largely fall by the wayside. Winston Churchill reiterated this when he wrote “the temptation to tell a chief in a great position the things he most likes to hear is the commonest explanation of mistaken action” (Simon, 1984, p. 132).
From the review section
it is apparent that the
The findings of this study, detailing acquiescence to erroneous normative demands, have much in common with the way in which Milgram (1974, p. 188) described his findings:
“This is, perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become clear, and they’re asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.”
Similarly, Arendt’s (1964, pp. 278-288) “banality of evil” concept relates to the self-induced cognitive blindness that inhibits one from reflecting upon the destructive consequences of one’s decisions.
Further, this study has identified how moral values and ethical considerations are all too often excluded from deliberations concerning political policies and intelligence analyses. Such amoral considerations very often lead to immoral political, military and foreign policy positions and interventions. The consequences are not only appalling war crimes, human rights violations and the wastage of human life, but also the extinguishment of the moral foundation from which our American society was based upon, and from which its survival and continued worth is so dependent.
The results of the experimental study have revealed that a substantial portion of the military officer sample lacked the personal resources (which can be defined as character strength, moral courage or moral fiber) necessary to challenge the incorrect dictates of authority figures and peer-based normative pressures.
Prior research (e.g., Asch, 1965) has
demonstrated the value of having outspoken individualists in a decision-making body. It has been shown that the voicing of even one non-conforming
opinion can have a strong liberating effect on the deliberations of other
decision-makers (Moscovici, 1985).
Such a break in group unanimity helps to deter the detrimental effects of groupthink. However, it seems likely that those
officers whose psychological profile matches Milgram and Arendt’s description
are the ones most likely to excel in today’s military bureaucracies and thereby
continue to foster a climate that suppresses dissension or displays of moral courage (e.g., Carroll, 1990;
On a philosophical level, the final conclusion of
this study is the following: Moral courage is a rare commodity that should be
nurtured, not ruthlessly vilified and purged from the system. The current political, military and academic institutional
practices that denigrate character strength, intellectual honesty and sense of honor constitute grave threats to our democratic society. However, as long as we accept,
encourage and even embrace such intolerance, deception, lack of accountability, intellectual dishonesty
and outright lies from our leaders (as our election process so richly
indicates), then we get what we deserve.
That’s the nature of a democracy. As Will Rogers said, “If
At the time of the completion of this study, the following story appeared in Newsweek (1990):
Newsweek has learned that
an American Special Forces officer, who told
Newsweek has pieced together the following narrative of what happened in the case
of Maj. Eric Buckland. Last Nov. 16 the priests were gunned down
The similarity of this real-life case to the situation depicted in this study should be obvious, especially when considering the groupthink condition (see Appendix A).
[And so much for any pretense of Moral Leadership.]
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Crisis Scenario: Part I
(Bold indicates groupthink manipulation presented
to one-half of study participants.)
You are the
following 24 hours no other details of the crash have been uncovered. Because of the communist government's lack of
What factors did you consider when making your decision?
Crisis Scenario: PART II
President, relying more on the man-on-the-spot, has followed your advice and
implemented the course of action you recommended. One week later one of the top leaders of the
rebel force defects to the embassy where you are located. With him is seemingly conclusive evidence that
it was the rebel forces that deliberately shot down the
Why did you take this course of action? (2-4 sentences)