By Tom Willerton-Gartside
WITH 130,000 deaths in the UK alone from Covid, the response to the pandemic has undeniably been disastrous.
More widely, developed Western nations struggled to protect the lives of citizens. But should we really be surprised? History suggests not.
The West has failed to make the most effective decisions in crisis throughout history. For example, the European establishment failed to prevent WWII, despite aggressive nationalism and subverting international treaties and democracy by Hitler during the 1930s.
Indeed, the policy of appeasement was heavily influenced by the idea that there definitely would not be another large-scale conflict in Europe due to the devastating economic and social consequences of WWI, rather than treating Germany as the unpredictable military nation that had occupied Czechoslovakia.
More recently, the invasion of Iraq was motivated by the wrongful belief that Iraq had WMD.
In all three instances, western establishments suffered from an ‘illusion of invulnerability’. A lack of scrutiny to plans, preparations and information has ensured that the West has consistently made poor decisions, informed by confirmation bias and motivated reasoning as much as any empirical evidence.
Groupthink, the idea that groups of people have a tendency to agree in order to maintain group harmony, has been an eternal factor in the failures of the West to prepare and respond to crises.
A system that incentivises loyalty rather than rewarding success means that there is a lack of cognitive diversity within the political class as those who are promoted to prominent positions are too often reinforcing the status quo beliefs, rather than challenging them through rational thought.
In October 2019, the UK was ranked as the second best prepared country for a pandemic, yet it now has one of the worst death totals globally.
German philosopher Hegel once claimed that ‘we learn from history that we learn nothing from history’.
Hegel’s words are a stark warning for the future. Western establishments have never responded successfully to a crisis, and they aren’t prepared for the ones to come.
Groupthink will continue to harm decision making as politicians and officials seek to pass responsibility on for their failures during the pandemic.
The West might not be prepared for upcoming AI developments, nor the impact of cryptocurrency and climate change. We will continue to see crises develop in the coming decades, and the West are still likely to be slow and ineffective at responding.
To solve the groupthink issue, officials and institutions should be encouraging cognitive diversity and the use of ‘red teams’. Whilst preventing groupthink altogether is highly unlikely, minimising its impact on decisions is crucial to ensuring an effective decision.
This does not mean they are going to be more successful, but spotting groupthink must be the first step in making better decisions.
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