Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Intelligence reports renew focus on the pitfalls of `groupthink'

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"The committee concluded that the intelligence community was suffering from what we call a collective groupthink," said Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee. "This groupthink also extended to our allies and to the United Nations."

In London a few days later, Lord Butler of Brockwell and his Committee of Privy Counsellors issued a report that investigated "whether there developed within the intelligence community over a decade of analysis and assessment `group think' or a `prevailing wisdom.'"

The word is obviously in vogue in the English-speaking world of oversight. Although Roberts was being redundant when he used collective to modify groupthink, the committee staff was scrupulous in providing an etymology of the headline-provoking word in its 511-page report: "a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis in the 1970s to describe a process in which a group can make bad or irrational decisions as each member of the group attempts to conform their opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group."

If the committee's other conclusions are as outdated as its etymology, we're all in trouble. "Groupthink" (one word, no hyphen) was the title of an article in Fortune magazine in March 1952 by William Whyte.

"Groupthink is becoming a national philosophy," he wrote. "Groupthink being a coinage -- and, admittedly, a loaded one -- a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity -- it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity -- an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well."

Whyte derided the practice, which he argued was embodied by a trained elite of Washington's "social engineers."

The word now means "the result of successful pressure to conform." It is more pejorative than "conventional wisdom," a 1958 coinage of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, which itself is bottomed on "received wisdom," in turn rooted in "received custom," a 1382 church term for the teaching of tradition.

Why do so many of us assume groupthink to be Orwellian? The answer is in its analogy to doublethink, coined by George Orwell in his 1949 novel, 1984. He defined "the labyrinthine world of doublethink" as holding "simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them."

I queried Erin McKean, editor of Verbatim, for other think-formations besides the odious sickthink. (Verbatim, the valuable word-study publication that the lexicographer Larry Urdang founded in 1974, will celebrate its 30th volume next year.) She passes along James Kilpatrick's newthink, his criticism of "academic dragoons." She also cites oldthink (so five minutes ago) and Timesthink, the definition of which I have no need to determine.


July was intelligence month. Following the lengthy reports on intelligence shortcomings by the US Senate and by Lord Butler in Britain featuring groupthink, along came the 9/11 commission's report. Its most controversial word was collaborative.

What word best describes the sort of relationship, if any, that former president Saddam Hussein's Iraq had with Osama bin Laden's Qaeda? Bush administration officials, relying on CIA reports, have pointed to a series of contacts over the years that amounted to "mutual support" and, in Vice President Dick Cheney's choice of adjectives, "a longstanding" and "established relationship." The Sept. 11 commission staff at first concluded that these contacts "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."

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