10/16/2014 05:46 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Escaping the Perils of Group-think

Western policy in Ukraine and some other places shows signs of "group-think" among decision-makers. Almost everyone among advisors wants to be thought of as being "on the team." Of course there are bureaucratic turf battles within any government, but it's a rare figure who can risk the charge that he (or she) is thinking even a little like the other side.

Irving Janis, the psychologist, studied this phenomenon years ago, publishing an early version of his theory in Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness (which I had the honor of co-editing with Nevitt Sanford, an author of the social science classic, The Authoritarian Personality).

How to overcome the natural tendency for a group to understand, or take seriously, only its own point of view? In fact, knowing how the other side thinks is essential for making good policy.

In the 16th century the Roman Catholic church faced a similar challenge in the process for canonizing an individual. Did he or she deserve this honor? The church established an office known as Promoter of the Faith who was appointed to argue against establishing the person as a saint. The official was known colloquially as advocatus diaboli, the Devil's Advocate. His job was to find holes in the evidence and to suggest that even if the proponents' facts were true, the honor was not deserved.

Something similar would be wise when making decisions about the sponsorship of coups, about military challenge and possibly war, as in Ukraine.

In June of 1963 John Kennedy gave a speech at American University on peace, in which he stated that if our country had been invaded in World War Two as the Soviet Union was, the aggressors would have burned their way from New York as far as the outskirts of Chicago, destroying millions of homes, wrecking two-thirds of industry, killing 20 million people.

When citizen diplomats went to Moscow in the 1980s, two decades later, Russians were still talking about Kennedy's speech. The president was speaking not as a devil's advocate might, but as an empathic leader. (It's true that during the years that he described, the USSR was an ally, but it was not at the time that he spoke.)

I suppose that an American devil's advocate would begin his talk on Ukraine by recalling the Cuban missile crisis. Then, in November of 1962, the missiles secretly installed were about a thousand miles from the District of Columbia. Parts of Ukraine, where western forces aim to go, perhaps bringing missile bases, are less than a few hundred miles from Moscow. The Cuban crisis was called the most dangerous time in human history. How would we feel, a devil's advocate might ask, if Russian forces were just across the Canadian border?

Perhaps I'm partial to the value of a devil's advocate because of once playing this role. In a workshop in the high desert of Arizona, run by the anthropologist Angeles Arrien, one man asked to be initiated as if we were a tribe. Angie sent the men off to a room to hear the would-be initiate describe his worst qualities. After an hour she had him pick the person most unlike himself. He picked me.

My job was to wear a mask, lead a procession of the men into a circle of women, and give all the reasons why the candidate was unworthy of being initiated! The group decided that, on balance, he could undergo the ritual. I felt I had done my job, airing in public some of the tendencies that he had to grow out of, and meanwhile beware of. (Despite seeming unlike him, I shared some of these negative tendencies.)

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently gave a UN speech telling how the Ukraine crisis looks from his side of the border. "The US and the EU [European Union] supported the [February 2014] coup in Ukraine and reverted to outright justification of any act by the self-proclaimed Kiev authorities that used suppression by force on ... the Ukrainian people that had rejected the attempts to impose an anti-constitutional way of life to the entire country and wanted to defend its rights to a native language, culture and history."

In the absence of an American devil's advocate, this speech deserves careful listening. Of course it can be dismissed quickly as Russian propaganda, but pretend for a moment that it was spoken not at the UN podium, but in a private White House deliberation. We are free to argue against him, but only after understanding where he is coming from.

Would having a devil's advocate prevent group-think? Perhaps the exercise of "full-spectrum dominance" is so integral an aspect of the "Washington consensus" that any alternative is unthinkable. Perhaps our policy-makers believe that nobody can be allowed to defy their will, no matter what the cost to us and to allies, no matter what the risk of war on somebody else's border.

Is this wise?