What NASA can teach us about Groupthink
A summary of a great NASA deck on the epistemic collapse of intellectual groups
One of my favorite decks of all time is this 7-slide masterpiece from NASA, titled The Cost of Silence. Basically, catastrophes happen when people trust the group over their own judgment. The phenomenon is highly related to the bystander effect. I cannot stress enough how much you should not let this happen in your organizations or institutions.
Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviation that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.
— Diane Vaughn, 1996
This normalization happens because of “groupthink”, which is shorthand for “literally nobody is thinking because we’re all just vibing bro” There are 8 symptoms of groupthink, according to NASA, and some recommendations on how to avoid them:
Illusion of Invulnerability
Belief in the Inherent Morality of the Group
Self-Censorship (of people who would otherwise dissent)
Illusion of Unanimity
Direct Pressure on Dissenters
I just want to take a moment to point out: your organization is probably succumbing to groupthink right now. I think most institutions are because we’re living through an era of groupthink. Increasingly powerful mass media tools have made groupthink easier than ever. Why would I ever need to worry about my own judgments, when “expert” judgments are just a tweet away. You can consult “the experts” on anything — in fact, it’s common to be socially shamed if you dare express a non-expert opinion.
School should have taught us that the most important thing we could do was research the truth from facts so we can figure things out for ourselves and build up a vast body of earned knowledge. Counterintuitively, it seems to have taught us that it is impossible to remember the truth about everything, so we might as well just defer to our favorite experts.But just where does all this blind obedience get us? (Here's a hint: NASA is the one writing the report on how bad the outcomes can get.)
This whole thing reminds me of the CIA’s guide on how to sabotage your workplace, which was distributed after WW2, and then somehow became our defacto way of operating corporations. I find it hilarious to read:
Sounds like more than a few workplaces I know.
The relevant concept in engineering here is “thinking from first-principles”, rather than thinking from social norms.