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Obama's Choice and the Social Psychology of Group Decision Making

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To an appreciable degree, the killing of Osama bin Laden on Sunday, May 1 was driven by President Obama's courageous choice to authorize direct action by U.S. Navy Seals at the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was hiding. Obama undertook this decision under great uncertainty, with only marginally favorable odds (of 55 to 45), as he described in his interview with 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft.

Significantly, Obama arrived at his fateful decision despite considerable splits within the national security team about the ultimate wisdom of the action. Of even greater interest, Obama extolled the virtues of such disagreements. In his words to Kroft: "the fact that there were some who voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable, because it meant the plan was sharper, it meant that we had thought through all of our options, it meant that when I finally did make the decision, I was making it based on the very best information."

The president's intuition in this case jibes well with social psychology's knowledge about conditions for optimal group decision making. A growing body of research suggests that it is diversity of qualified viewpoints that affords the leader an enlightened choice -- one that takes into account a range of possible consequences, and enables the development of contingency plans for the sundry mishaps that any complex situation invites.

Nor should it be taken for granted that national decision making teams are necessarily aware, or, if aware in theory, capable in practice of implementing this principle of diverse counsel. In fact, major policy debacles by several U.S. administrations have been traced to excessive gravitation of decision making teams toward consensus, what Irwin Janis, labeled a tendency toward "groupthink."

This pathology of group decision making has been held responsible for no lesser foreign policy disasters than (1) the poor preparedness of the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, (2) the unfortunate Bay of Pigs invasion decided on by President Kennedy and his advisors, (3) the series of decisions by the Johnson administration to continue and escalate the Vietnam war, and (4) the Watergate cover-up operation by President Nixon and his squad.

The big question then is how to overcome the considerable psychological pull of the "groupthink" magnet, and how to encourage the generation and expression of independent opinions by the team members. What complicates matters is that a diversity of opinions, should one manage to generate it, poses a different problem widely known as "paralysis by analysis." Unless properly managed and distilled into a coherent plan of action, team members' divergent opinions may devolve into an endless debate, an entrenchment of the advocates of divergent views behind increasingly rigid positions, and the escalation of their commitment to opposing views.

In his interview with Kroft, Obama partially attributed the success of the Abbottabad operation to "building a team that is collegial and where everybody speaks their mind; [where] every one of the advisors knows I expect them to give me their best assessments." Indeed, team building and the encouragement of frankness and collegiality are helpful and important.

In and of themselves, however, they might not immunize the team from the pitfalls of conformity to majority opinion, or the desire to please the leader (both typically operating under the radar of consciousness); nor may they guarantee the team's ability to move beyond analysis, and on to actionable conclusions.

The missing ingredient here is team composition: Inclusion in the decision making group of personalities whose mix produces synergy that optimizes decision quality while avoiding paralysis. Recently, researchers at the Universities of Maryland, Columbia and Rome have discovered a mix of personalities that promises such a "perfect storm."

The idea, supported by a growing number of studies, is that optimal group decision making requires the inclusion in the team of two types of individuals known in the scientific lingo as "locomotors" and "assessors."

Locomotors are people of action, their dominant proclivity is to move the group forward and "just do it." Assessors insist on careful analysis. Their main concern is "getting things right," and they spare no time or effort in generating scenarios, comparing alternatives and exploring possibilities. If left to their own devices, locomotors can jump to action too quickly, before sufficient preparation. They, therefore, are susceptible to errors of commission.

Assessors, if left alone, are too ensnared in deliberative analysis; they can be too slow to act and they may "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Their Achilles' heel is vulnerability to errors of omission. Research suggests, however, that groups with balanced proportions of locomotors and assessors make magic happen. Such balanced groups are both decisive and analytic--their judgments are crisp and yet well grounded, as good as the circumstances allow.

It is quite possible that President Obama's team has contained in its midst a near perfect mix of locomotion and assessment tendencies. The proof is in the pudding, and the "pudding" here was sweet indeed.

But the momentous weight of national security decisions militates against leaving such matters to chance. The science of psychology has accumulated much knowledge about what makes decision making groups tick. It would seem prudent to take advantage of such knowledge in matters of national interest. It is for the common good that these receive all the help one can get.