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Reviewed by Barry Fulton, Ph. D.

Groupthink versus High-Quality Decision Making in International Relations, Mark Schafer and Scott Crichlow, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-231-14888-7, 304 pages, $82.50

This ambitious book with a misleading title sets out to determine the factors that advance or impede the goals of policymakers in pursuit of advancing the national interest.  Schafer and Crichlow examine 39 foreign policy cases across nine administrations to identify structure, process, and personalities that contribute to “high-quality” decision-making.  The strength of the book lies in their comprehensive review of the literature and their exhaustive statistical analyses of the cases.  On the other hand, they are reluctant to abandon their model of decision-making when it does not hold up to their rigorous analysis.

The term “groupthink” in the title builds on classic studies conducted by Irving Janis in which he identified the symptoms of d

efective decision-making.  Schafer and Crichlow go well beyond the Janis model by proposing a non-linear model involving group structure, group processes, the external situation, and the psychology of the group leader. 

The external situation includes 11 variables such as the threat level, allies’ views, and public opinion.  The group structure captures another 11 variables ranging from group homogeneity to gatekeepers.   The group process includes eight additional variables such as poor information search and survey of objectives.  Schaefer and Crichlow also identify seven psychological traits of the group leader including self-confidence, need for power, and distrust of others.  All told, they set out to find the contribution these 37 variables make to two related outcomes of decision-making: advancing the national interest and the reduction of international conflict.

The conceptual and statistical challenge that Schafer and Crichlow have set for themselves is daunting, and sidesteps the goal of parsimony in creating models to explain real world behavior.  Nonetheless, they have succeeded in capturing scores of research studies positing causal relationships among these variables and the quality of decision-making regarding international affairs. 

One shortcoming of the model, acknowledged by the authors, is its one-sided approach of measuring success from the vantage point of one actor (e. g., nation, alliance) without concurrently examining the processes, structure, and psychology of the adversary.  As they write, “outcomes are also likely to be influenced by actors on the other side of the dyad….” (205)

Whereas the “heart” of their analysis, as they write, is in the two chapters on statistical analysis, practitioners may be more interested in the earlier chapters with case studies ranging from Carter’s decisions regarding the Shah of Iran to Reagan’s decision concerning Marcos.  Each of the cases is rated by a panel of experts and described with reference to the Schafer-Crichlow model of decision-making. 

A brief and therefore incomplete summary of the statistical analysis of 39 cases reveals that the situational variables “may not be crucial in affecting the outcome of a case” because only one of the variables was statistically significant. (163) Group structures and processes, however, are found to be significant in the quality of the outcomes, even as some of the contributing factors were not found to be significant.  Veteran diplomats would undoubtedly agree from experience that the statistical analysis is correct, if not necessarily insightful: “Good structures and processes are likely to result in better achievements in national interests and lower levels of international conflict.” (183)

To complement their analysis of group behavior, Schafer and Crichlow also examined the psychological makeup of nine leaders including six former American presidents.  While they often state the obvious in interpreting their data set – “…there is broad variation, perhaps in patterned ways, across these leaders on psychological traits, decision-making procedures, and outcomes” – their multi-variant analysis confirms that the psychological traits of a national leader are instrumental in decision-making. (197) In my interpretation of their summary tables and analysis, there is one trait that consistently and negatively affects the decision process:  Distrust of the motives and actions of others. (194)

The most readable part of the book, otherwise filled with tables and statistical analyses, is chapter eight: “The 2003 War in Iraq: How Flawed Decision Making Led to Critical Failures.”  Drawing on a number of sources, Schafer and Crichlow write a compelling account of what went wrong by drawing on their model to explain the flaws in the decision process.  Writing about the decision to go to war, they conclude: “The group was unsystematic, warring, biased, and cloistered away.  This created an unstable, opaque echo chamber in which diligently carrying out carefully considered planning was next to impossible.” (232)

In summary, Schafer and Crichlow write that their study was “premised on the notion that there may indeed be better and worse forms of group-based decision making.” (247)  They proceed to affirm that their research has demonstrated the factors that make a difference.  Returning to the work of Janis, they dispute his conclusion that the quality of decision making can be improved by reducing group cohesion (i.e., reducing “groupthink”) by asserting that a balance between group cohesion and contrarian input is the ideal.  How to balance the two?  Leadership, they conclude is the key.  “A leader with sharp political skills and acumen, including self-confidence and a high need for power, is more likely to achieve positive outcomes.” (249)

And the summary of this reviewer: an exceptionally ambitious, thorough, and analytic insight into high level decision making that in failing to yield a working model of these complex processes, succeeds in teasing out those principles that should underlie any international decision whose consequences may affect the national interest or the level of international conflict.End.

Barry Fulton
Barry Fulton

Dr. Barry Fulton is a management consultant at the U.S. Department of State and teaches at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.  A former Associate Director of the United States Information Agency, during his 30-year career as a Foreign Service Officer with the Agency, he served in Brussels, Rome, Tokyo, Karachi, and Islamabad.  Fulton holds a Ph. D. in communications from the University of Illinois, a master’s degree in broadcasting and bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Penn State.   He has taught at the Foreign Service Institute, at various American universities, and the Pakistani Information Academy.   He is the author of Leveraging Technology in the Service of Diplomacy: Innovation in the Department of State and project director and author of the CSIS study, Reinventing Diplomacy in the Information Age.


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