Jeffrey Bordin, Ph.D.

Captain, U.S. Army Reserve


Address:  9848 Sunland Blvd., Shadow Hills, CA 91040-1528

e-mail:   jbordin@dmh.co.la.ca.us



Paper to be presented at the Joint Services Conference On Professional Ethics, January 24-25, 2002, Springfield, VA.




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 June 4th, 1942, 51 U.S. warplanes armed with torpedoes took off in a desperate attack on a vastly superior Japanese military force that was closing on Midway Island.  The U.S. airmen were well aware of the stakes and the almost insurmountable odds against their own survival.  Despite the holocaust they were flying into, every aircrew pressed their attack—many while literally engulfed in flames.  Virtually all the aircraft were destroyed, and 98 airmen were killed.  It is likely that at least two, and possibly three or more U.S. pilots attempted to crash their fatally stricken aircraft into a Japanese warship during their final moments; another bomber pilot, Captain Richard Fleming, succeeded in doing so later in the battle.  Despite the incredible courage, the resolute determination and the selfless sacrifice of these attacks, not a single torpedo detonated against a Japanese warship.  The torpedoes were defective (cf. Fuchida & Okumiya, 1982; Levite, 1987; Lord, 1967; Mizrahi, 1967; Smith, 1991; Stafford, 1962).

This paper is concerned with the study of dysfunctional leadership, judgment, command decision-making and intelligence analysis manifested by premature 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 pathologies among U.S. military officers participating in a gaming-type exercise.  Dependent variables examined include premature aggression (military intervention), acquiescence to erroneous normative demands, decision-making rigidity and moral exclusion.  Specifically, the experiment examines how moral/ethical-based cognition influences U.S. military officers’ initial risk propensities to engage in premature cognitive closure (and thereby recommend flawed policy actions based on poor assumptions originating from incomplete, ambiguous intelligence data).  It also examines their willingness to make changes to such erroneous intelligence reports and policy measures once presented with new intelligence data that contradicts the validity of their original course of action.  For assessing moral exclusion, military officers who chose to continue supporting an anti-Communist rebel group that murdered a planeload of U.S. embassy personnel and their families in a terrorist attack were examined. 

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 U.S. military officers in a gaming scenario.  It examined their propensity to prematurely implement punitive measures against a hypothetical communist government in retaliation to a costly terrorist attack against U.S. embassy personnel—measures that were based on ambiguous and minimal intelligence information as well as erroneous assumptions.  It then examined their intransigence in not terminating such measures when confronted by additional, unexpected intelligence information that challenged the legitimacy of their original punitive actions.  Character strength was assessed when officers recognized the right thing to do and had the courage to follow through despite authoritative and normative pressures to do otherwise.

Groupthink Explained

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 Vietnam should be extended.  Despite strong reservations on the part of the Army and Navy chiefs concerning the military effectiveness of such a strategy, “the JCS consistently submitted agreed recommendations to the Secretary of Defense and ultimately to the President.  Basic differences existing among the chiefs [were concealed]” (Palmer, 1984, pp. 34-35).  That this process continued during the war is indicated by what transpired during the belated 1967 proposals made by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concerning change in American policy in Vietnam.  Because the proposals sharply diverged from U.S. policy at the time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged that they “not be forwarded to the President” as they were unworthy of even being considered (White, 1971).  Ironically, McNamara had treated Marine General Victor Krulak in a similar manner the previous year when Krulak had requested to meet with the President to discuss changing McNamara’s own futile attrition strategy (Sheehan, 1988, pp. 632-633).  In a double irony, Krulak had censored an Army officer, John Paul Vann, in a like manner two years previously when Vann had attempted to communicate to the JCS his own objections regarding the futile attrition strategy (Sheehan, 1988, p. 340).

Another case of mindguard behavior occurred immediately prior to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.  The Director of Central Intelligence, Richard Helms, delayed forwarding a CIA report to President Nixon that indicated that any attempt to eliminate communist base areas in Cambodia would have no long-term strategic effect on the war effort (Volkman & Bagget, 1989, p. 156). 

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 Persian Gulf in which the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial airliner (i.e., Friedman, 1989a; Gruner, 1990).  During a military engagement, the Vincennes’ tactical information coordinator communicated incorrect information to the other members in the combat information center indicating that a nearby-unidentified aircraft was diving towards them.  The members of the combat information center, expecting an attack, accepted the false data willingly.  This information was then communicated to the ship’s captain.  However, moments later another officer noticed that the unidentified aircraft was increasing in altitude, not decreasing, as had been erroneously reported.  He immediately informed the captain that the target was quite possibly a civilian aircraft (Davis, 1989).  However, the captain replied with a raised hand.  Shortly afterward he ordered it shot down, and 290 civilians perished on the commercial airliner.  Less than six months later another 270 people were killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 as retaliation for the destruction of the Iranian aircraft (Adams, 1990).

Further detrimental effects and serious consequences of Groupthink are reflected in William Kennedy’s (1983, p. 19) assessment of the performance of the U.S. intelligence community.  Kennedy reported, “The best long-range estimates [are] made by individuals and the worst by the sort of committee on which the intelligence bureaucracies currently are based.”  As an example, two months prior to the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, two U.S. Army intelligence officers accurately predicted when, where, and how it would occur.  However, during their briefing with the rest of the military intelligence complex, their forecasts were met with open laughter.  Their superior refused to forward their report to Washington, and threatened to destroy their military careers if they persisted with such analyses (Volkman & Baggett, 1989, pp. 136-138).

Susceptibility to the Groupthink Process

Meyer (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 U.S. military operations.  One example cited by General Bruce Palmer (1984, p. 10) reported how numerous U.S. Army officers who were returning from duty in Vietnam and who had gained much valuable experience and knowledge regarding the Vietnam War were basically ignored at the Pentagon.  Palmer argued that a contributing factor for this “was the traditional reluctance of Washington-level staff officers (military and civilian) to accept the judgments of the officials in the field trying to fathom the constantly shifting intricacies of the Vietnamese scene” (p. 10).  Similarly, Padros (1987, pp. 62-63) described how the “Sigma” war games of 1963 and 1964 to analyze the Indochina situation demonstrated the inadvisability of U.S. military intervention.  Yet no top policymakers were persuaded to modify their views.  According to Padros, the results merely served to fuel contention between the competing bureaucratic factions.  Likewise, CIA director William Casey admitted that even when lower ranking intelligence officers produced good analysis, “these analytical insights were strangled in the clearance and coordination process” (Kennedy, 1983, p. 201).

Scapegoating through 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 Iowa’s captain complained that naval investigators were more concerned with the Navy’s image than with protecting its sailors (Plunket, 1990, A3).  The Navy also failed to report the fact that the department performing the investigation was also responsible for having managed the improper testing procedures that were being conducted at the time of the explosion. 

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 Indianapolis’ assigned patrol area and had just sunk a U.S. destroyer there, yet failed to warn the Indianapolis’ captain, John McVay III of this development, nor did they provide an anti-submarine escort.  Senior officers in Washington were then informed of an intercepted Japanese communication that reported the sinking of the Indianapolis, yet dismissed it without further investigation.  Other senior officers failed to launch a search-and-rescue mission after the ship became grossly overdue.  Senior Air Force officers then dismissed an aerial reconnaissance report of a naval battle and debris in the Indianapolis’ vicinity, declaring it a naval matter. These delays accounted for most of the ship’s losses (there were 883 deaths among the 1199 crewmen).  In order to cover-up the almost treasonable negligence of several admirals and generals (as well as their depraved indifference to human life), Captain McVay was blamed for the ship’s loss.  Undeservedly disgraced, he eventually committed suicide.

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 Lebanon in the early 1980’s.  U.S. government officials, including Marine Corps Commandant P.X. Kelly, falsely reported that the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was an unforeseeable surprise attack.  Yet within the previous few months there had been two other similar car-bombings at the U.S. embassy there (Hadley, 1986, p. 43; Polmar, 1987).  Additionally, a military intelligence team months before the attack had reported unsound practices and serious flaws in security.  Such included the location of the barracks in a valley surrounded by mountains containing known hostile forces as well as Marine sentries with unloaded weapons, and security barriers having been removed from the compounds perimeter (Adams, 1988, pp. 214-215; Kurtis, 1989).  Following the battleship bombardment that led to a substantial number of civilian casualties, intelligence reported by the U.S. Army Special Forces training team in Beirut several days before the bombing had flatly stated that an attack was imminent, yet such information was discounted by “responsible” U.S. authorities (Adams, 1988, pp. 214-215; Cowan, 1989).  Indeed, selective information processing continued even after the deaths of these 241 servicemen.  In what could be considered the ultimate betrayal, in order to save face, senior government authorities officially listed them as having died from “accidental causes” (Lutz, 1989, p. 175).  And if moral and ethical principles were an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, President Bush would not have cordially met in 1990 with President Assad of Syria, one of the world’s foremost sponsors of terrorism and who was directly responsible for the deaths of 241 U.S. Marines at Beirut (Black & Morris, 1991, p. 392.)

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 U.S. embassy there six months earlier.  Despite counterterrorism intelligence warnings that terrorist bombings were imminent, lax security conditions were allowed to continue at the embassy (Emerson, 1988, pp. 184-185).  Ironically, an earlier similar truck bomb attack had been carried out on the U.S. embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War (Hadley, 1986, p. 43).  Thus, such attacks were hardly unprecedented.

Examples of Moral Exclusion in U.S. Policies

President Reagan’s virulent anti-communism permitted him to ignore the most heinous of atrocities and war crimes in countries with governments friendly to the United States.  One example was his unfailing support for Guatemalan military ruler General Efrain Rios Montt, who had proclaimed, “We have no scorched earth policy—we have a policy of scorched communists,” and had said that he had declared a state of emergency so he could “kill people legally” (Green & MacCall, 1987, p. 24).  Amnesty International reported that Montt’s government practiced “widespread killing, including extrajudicial execution of large numbers of rural non-combatants, including entire families as well as persons suspected of sympathy with violent or non-violent opposition groups.”  But Reagan argued that Montt was getting a “bum rap” and was “totally committed to democracy” (Green & MacCall, 1987, p. 24).  Perhaps the most repugnant occurrence of this cognitive closure to unpalatable information during the Reagan Administration occurred following the rape and murder of four American women (three nuns and a Catholic layworker) by the El Salvadoran military.  Incredulously, because Reagan and his Administration wanted continued economic and military support to the El Salvadoran government, its ongoing psychopathic atrocities notwithstanding, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig actually suggested that the women may have provoked the attack themselves (Coates & Kilian, 1985, p. 294; Lutz, 1989, pp. 17-18, 196).

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 involved, ignoring 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 U.S. military aid to El Salvador. 

Another example of selective information processing occurred when President Bush discounted a CIA report warning of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (U.S. News & World Report, 1990a).  The day after receiving the report, the Bush Administration stated that patience and good will would keep Saddam Hussein in line and a more forceful stance was not needed (despite the fact that Hussein had launched a surprise invasion of Iran a decade before leading to a brutal war).  Iraq invaded Kuwait shortly afterward.  Bush’s failure to accept the CIA report and warn the U.S. citizens residing in those two countries to evacuate contributed to Iraq’s ability to take thousands of them as hostages (Flick, 1991).  This policy of appeasement and absence of moral and ethical considerations had a long history.  During its first eighteen months the Bush Administration resisted congressional efforts to implement sanctions against the Iraqi government in response to its barbaric and psychopathic atrocities against its ethnic Kurd population.  According to Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of operations and analysis at the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center, prior to the invasion of Kuwait the Bush Administration simply ignored terrorist actions sponsored by the Iraqi government (Long Beach Press-Telegram, 1990b).

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 U.S.’ perhaps best epitomizes the fraudulent rewriting of U.S. diplomatic history by the State Department.  This account contained such striking, ludicrous misrepresentations of fact that the Chairman of its Advisory Committee resigned in disgusted protest, and the volume was widely condemned by the historical profession (Walt, 1991).


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. 

Adams (1978) found a high positive correlation between organizations’ degree of bureaucratic structure and the respective members’ level of authoritarianism.  Shalit (1980) found that military officers who followed a “no questions asked” approach were rated more favorably than those who did not accept the system blindly were.  Davis (1967, pp. 228-229) observed one adverse outcome of this when he reported that during World War II “Air Force officers...sometimes seemed incapable of distinguishing between their dedication to country and their dedication to proving the validity of their Douhet-Mitchell strategic ideology” (i.e., the belief in the military feasibility and effectiveness of strategic aerial bombardment without fighter escort).  Herken (1987, p. 78) also reported additional evidence of this.  Likewise, Hamel (1988, p. 11) reported how the tradition-bound bureaucratic structure of the U.S. Navy prior to World War II “gutted the aggressive instincts of many fine potential combat officers...most of the men who got ahead were the ones who acquired advanced skills in keeping their heads down...avoiding risk [and decisions].”  Administrative skills and career survival skills carried greater importance than war-fighting skills. 

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).  West Point professor Anthony Hartle (1990) argued that U.S. military personnel must operate in an environment that severely challenges the observance of moral behavior.  Indeed, a suppressed Army War College study reported the cultural climate of the military to be one of mistrust, abuse, and exploitation (Kirkland, 1991).

Dixon (1976), Gabriel (1985), and Hart (1986, pp. 182-183) have reported that flexible and progressive thinkers are often denigrated, vilified and purged from authoritarian organizations.  Shover (1974) reported how members of such establishments who voice internal criticisms are often viewed as troublemakers.  Indeed, dissent is very often considered to be synonymous with disloyalty and betrayal. 

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 communist sympathizers.  According to Spanier, a tragic consequence of this massive exodus of independent thinkers soon followed.  When Washington was considering intervention in Vietnam, there were few foreign-service officers left who were willing to make an honest report of the South Vietnamese government’s weaknesses and its possible defeat by the Viet Cong.  Apparently, little has changed in recent times.  A book by a former analyst describes his former CIA colleagues as “scared rabbits [forced to] tailor their research efforts to support predetermined conclusions” (U.S. News & World Report, 1991, p. 27).

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.

Various military organizations have demonstrated a similar distaste for independent thinkers.  For instance, the U.S. military labeled Americans who fought the fascists in Spain during the Spanish Civil War as “premature anti-fascists.”  Those who later served with U.S. forces during World War II were treated with suspicion and ostracism (Gerassi, 1986, pp. 17, 159-236; Landis, 1966, p. 599).  The FBI also harassed these so-called “premature antifascists”; J. Edgar Hoover even tried to prosecute them (Volkman & Baggett, 1989, p. 53).  Similarly, attempts were made by the U.S. State Department and Ambassador Joseph Kennedy to deport the American volunteer fighter pilots that were, on their own accord, participating in the crucial and desperate Battle of Britain in 1940.  These American volunteers also faced harassment from the FBI, prosecution, and the loss of their citizenship (Johnson, 1990a).  Pathetically, most and perhaps all this entire latter group of “premature anti-fascists” were killed before all these punitive measures could be fully implemented against them (Johnson, 1990b).

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.)

Experimental Study

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 concerned a heinous 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 U.S. foreign policy (Herman & O’Sullivan, 1990).  Indeed, in what should be considered a national disgrace, there have been numerous instances of high-level government officials and agencies continuing to support anti-Communist government and revolutionary groups despite massive evidence of their involvement in repugnant human rights abuses and war crimes atrocities (Frontline, 1991; Szykowny, 1991), a process termed “Reaganitis” by the present researcher.  Thus, an empirical analysis of the psychosocial dynamics associated with such an ideological stance seems long overdue. 

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 search; 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 U.S. presidents since the end of World War II, and found that based on the seven symptoms identified by Janis and Mann, the quality of the decision-making process is related to the decision’s outcome. 

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 their decision-making rationale most likely operate at a high or post-conventional stage of moral reasoning (cf. Fogelman, 1987; Monroe, 1991; Schwartz, 1970; Staub, 1978; Wundheiler, 1986. 

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 at My Lai.  Therefore, it was expected that at least some decision-makers reporting these conceptual considerations would utilize them to continue their punitive measures (e.g., continued support of the anti-Communist rebel group in the scenario) or even as a means of personal, institutional, or national face-saving.  Thus, the utilization of moral/ethical terms may not automatically serve as a consistently reliable indicator for flexible, non-punitive decision-making, nor for post-conventional moral reasoning.  However, such cases were expected to be relatively few in numbers.

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 U.S. lost an aircraft full of Americans to terrorism.  (Pan Am Flight 103 was lost after the fictional scenario was prepared; the first study participant was tested two weeks prior to the destruction of the Pan Am 747 aircraft.)  Thus, the setting of the scenario was in a Third World country engaged in a civil war, and the specific crisis situation concerned a terrorist attack on an U.S. aircraft.  Consequently, the fictional scenario is highly relevant to contemporary international affairs. 

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 Spain, McKinley (described by Theodore Roosevelt as having “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair”—Musicant, 1990, p. 14) acquiesced to the strong jingoistic pressures he was subjected to.

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 the U.S. response.  In Condition 2, participants were exposed to a groupthink influence.  Specifically, during the first part of the crisis situation in this condition, participants read what their military colleagues and superiors, as well as the U.S. President and U.S. public thought should be done (namely, that the U.S. should intervene militarily).  During the second half of the crisis scenario, participants read that their colleagues believed that the U.S. should continue with the current policy response previously selected, and that the new intelligence data (which tended to disprove the legitimacy of a military response against the communist government) should be discounted.  (In the non-groupthink condition no such social factors or influences were included.)  Thus, in the second half of the scenario in the groupthink condition, the fictional military colleagues were manifesting the “Othello error” (a decision-making error whereby the analyst fails to objectively process information which challenges existing views, especially when pertaining to highly stressful/crisis situations—Ekman & O’Sullivan, 1989, pp. 317-319).  This was especially true if the participant’s initial chosen policy response had been belligerent in nature. 

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 U.S. embassy staff (implying a pre-existing working relationship with fictional colleagues and thus, homogeneity).  Participants were informed that their superiors, the U.S. President and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favored immediate military retaliation (promotional leadership).  Study participants also learned that they had been relocated to a friendly embassy where they were restricted to stay during the duration of the crisis; also that the communist government was being uncooperative with their investigative efforts (group insulation from outside information).  Participants were informed that they and their surviving colleagues made up a small, select skeletal staff at the embassy (a cohesive group).  Given the circumstances of the scenario, and the past behaviors of American military personnel in similar circumstances, it can be surmised that the small group of survivors would have bonded together (e.g., Holsti, 1989, p. 21).  Additionally, the scenario dealt with the destruction of an U.S. aircraft and at least the threat of continued and escalating military hostilities (a crisis situation).  As presented, the scenario dealt with how to respond to a heinous terrorist act (a complex and difficult decision problem).  Finally, participants were informed that the plane evacuating the embassy staff had been destroyed despite previous intelligence warnings (a recent group failure, in the poor outcome of a prior decision—the planned evacuation had failed).

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   

Political/Military                          Aggression  

Response Category                              Score          

1.              Evacuate remaining personnel.                   0   

Insist on U.S. investigation.    

Complain to the United Nations.  

Acquire more intelligence



2.              Threaten U.S. retaliation                  17.3     

2.   against country.


3.              Build-up of U.S. military forces           23.1     

  in area.  Show of force.



4.   Have U.S. naval force purposely             30.0     

   enter country’s territorial

   waters to recover and investigate

   debris from U.S. plane.



5.   Initiate economic sanctions.               31.2     


6.   Provide U.S. military aid to rebels.              49.1     



7.   Establish a U.S. naval blockade of          49.7     

        the country.


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

   capital city.


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 utilizing Kendall’s W (W = .97, chi-square = 26.09, df = 9, p<.01), which indicated a very high level of agreement.  Aggression values for each policy option were then added.  The option that demonstrated the least amount of aggression was assigned a value of 0.  The option that yielded the highest level of

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

              TABLE 2

Part B: Categories of Responses Measuring Rigidity

                                     Possible    Rigidity

     Original Recommendations            Responses      Score

1.   Evacuate remaining personnel.        Rigidity not       0

Insist on U.S. investigation.        operationalized.     Complain to United Nations.

Acquire more intelligence data.


2.   Build-up of U.S. military       End build-up.      1

forces in region.               Decrease buildup.   2

   Maintain buildup.   3

   Increase buildup.   4


3.   Threaten U.S. retaliation       End threats.       1

             Decrease threats.   2

   Maintain threats.   3

   Increase threats.   4


4.   Have U.S. naval force           End operations.    1

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


6.   Provide U.S. military aid to         End aid.           1

anti-Communist rebel fighters.   Decrease aid.     2

   Maintain aid.      3

   Increase aid.      4


7.   Establish an U.S. naval         End blockade.      1

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).

Moral/Ethical Reasoning

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 U.S. national interests.  For instance, in view of the prolonged high-level U.S. administrative support of the Nicaraguan Contras despite their known drug trafficking (i.e., Scott & Marshall, 1991, pp. 104-124), as well as their other human rights abuses, such reprehensible actions could be included in a future gaming scenario.  Also, investigation of the question of whether there would have been even a greater incidence of support for the rebels in the present scenario if the aircraft passengers had been foreign nationals instead of Americans would be of value in further exploring the process of moral exclusion.  It is possible, given the fact that the Cold War has basically ended since study participants completed the scenario (between December, 1988 and March, 1990), that there would be less tolerance for such actions carried out in the name of anti-communism.  However, the “New China” rhetoric professed by numerous government officials, agencies, and academicians from both sides of the political spectrum, despite massive evidence of China’s gross human rights violations (cf. Mosher, 1990) suggests that such moral exclusionary behavior based on political ideology, national or personal interests, etc., may prove to be quite robust.

Applied Implications

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 U.S. military and intelligence services (as well as various presidential administrations) create an environment that fosters suppression of independent thought, and where those who follow their own conscience or sense of moral or ethical principles risk harsh punitive measures--including being purged from the system.  Partisanship all too often is the ultimate test of members of such organizations, rather than sound judgment, rational objective analysis, or even physical courage.  Likewise, the detrimental effects of careerist and/or partisan-based intelligence analysis and political policy deliberations have been amply documented.  Such practices have greatly contributed to the political and military fiascoes the U.S. has experienced in recent years, and have caused national humiliation and disgrace.  Unfortunately, such failures more often lead to deflection of blame through scapegoating rather than any self-analysis that could lead to personal and/or institutional learning and change. 

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; Dixon, 1976).  This was epitomized by what transpired during White House deliberations over whether to employ a containment strategy or an offensive military operation to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff favored containment, but was unwilling to advocate it alone.  Since no one else in the deliberation group, including Bush, supported containment, he refrained from voicing his views (Woodward, 1991).    Further, contrast Powell’s passivity to the moral courage displayed by Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he risked his career and challenged the wisdom of taking too strong a belligerent response-one that was overwhelmingly favored among the inner circle (i.e., Janis, 1972), and likely would have led to nuclear war. 

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 America ever passes out as a great nation, we ought to put on our tombstone: America died from the delusion she had Moral Leadership” (Sterling, 1979, p. 43).


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 U.S. authorities in January he knew of Salvadoran military plans to murder six Jesuit priests last November, was later pressured by FBI and State Dept. officials to recant.  “He was grilled and grilled until finally he cracked,” says a Bush administration source.

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 in El Salvador.    Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, head of the Salvadoran military school, and seven other soldiers were charged with the killings.  On Dec. 20, Buckland, a U.S. advisor to the Salvadoran military, was told by a senior Salvadoran officer that Col. Benavides led the attack.  But it wasn’t until Jan. 2 that Buckland reported the tip to his superiors, who confronted Salvadoran Army Chief Col. Rene Emilio Ponce.  Nine days later Buckland told FBI agents he’d been warned of the attack 10 days before it happened.  He also said that Ponce knew of the plan and tried to stop it.  Buckland said he dismissed the threat because he didn’t think the Salvadoran Army “would do something that foolish.”  On Jan. 13 the FBI briefed U.S. Embassy officials in San Salvador about Buckland’s report.  On Jan. 18 Buckland said he’d been confused and his earlier statements were “not correct.”

U.S. officials told Newsweek that Buckland’s original statement was “100 percent accurate.”  The administration “didn’t want that story to come out,” sources said, because it “wasn’t productive to the conduct of the war.”  Buckland couldn’t be reached for comment.  The State Department denied pressuring Buckland to recant, and the FBI had no comment.

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 senior U.S. military attache of an U.S. embassy in a Third World country.  This country is currently engaged in a civil war.  The regime in power is communist and unfriendly to the U.S.  Because the U.S. is sympathetic to the rebel forces, the communist regime has demanded the closure of the U.S. embassy.  U.S. intelligence sources indicated that the regime planned to sponsor a terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy staff during the evacuation.  The planned evacuation was scheduled in two stages.  The first involved the evacuation of the vast majority of embassy staff as well as their dependents to a nearby U.S. Air and Naval base.  Only a small skeleton detachment was to be temporarily left which you, as senior military attache, headed.  As events transpired, the U.S. Air Force transport plane evacuating the U.S. embassy group was hit by a surface-to-air missile seconds after takeoff.  The plane exploded and the debris fell into the ocean just off shore.  There were no survivors.  The communist regime has been completely uncooperative with your investigative efforts.  The U.S. President has had all remaining U.S. embassy staff members moved to a friendly foreign embassy where they are secure and have been ordered to stay for the duration.

During the following 24 hours no other details of the crash have been uncovered.  Because of the communist government's lack of cooperation, the U.S. intelligence community is pessimistic about uncovering any further information.  Headlines demand harsh retaliatory measures.  You are informed that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff supports a strong and immediate military response.    The U.S. President has also communicated similar views.  The President has requested your personal and immediate advice on what course of action should be taken.  As senior U.S. military attache, what action do you recommend the U.S. take?  (2-4 sentences)

















What factors did you consider when making your decision?









                   Crisis Scenario: PART II

The U.S. 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 U.S. plane (the rebels had purportedly assumed that the communist regime would be blamed and that this would stimulate the U.S. to provide them with military assistance).  Your embassy colleagues have discounted this new information, determining that it is ambiguous and the source untrustworthy.  Therefore, they support continuing the present course of action.

As senior U.S. military attache, what course of action do you take?  (2-4 sentences)







Why did you take this course of action?  (2-4 sentences)