Methods of mass destruction

20 July 2004

Methods of mass destruction

Why we always want to blame someone when things go wrong

THE BUTLER REPORT damns as 'seriously flawed' the quality of some of the intelligence on Iraq used by Downing Street to bolster the case for going to war. But, in failing to blame Tony Blair, or anyone else for that matter, the report itself is not seriously flawed, according to a Birmingham-based academic.

Aston Business School's Professor Felix Brodbeck says that when a mistake is highlighted people immediately ask: who caused it, who is to blame?

The expert in social psychology and organisational behaviour says that the term for this is 'fundamental attribution error', the tendency to attribute the cause of events to people, or more precisely their inner states (their motives, their character) rather than environmental circumstances, remotely involved agents, complex interactions, or simple chance.

'There is an array of principally valid explanations,' explains Brodbeck, 'that is larger than we usually think, but generally we judge on the basis of which explanation is the most likely one and then choose to act upon it. As prime minister, we assume, we should blame Tony Blair for the decision to go to war.'

There is a fairly straightforward explanation for why we are so quick to jump to such decisions. According to Brodbeck, fundamental attribution processes are building blocks for our ability to explain, predict and thus control the environment. As such they helped us to survive as a species.

Beyond individual accountability

Brodbeck looks beyond the idea of individual misconduct and focuses on the pitfalls of collective decision making when it is not properly managed. Rather than: who is to blame? he considers: what processes are likely to have caused flawed intelligence to bolster the case for war?

One term that struck him within the Butler report is 'group think', the phenomenon of strong conformity that tends to suppress realistic and critical thinking in collective decision making. Group think is likely to occur when group cohesion is high and when decision makers are under considerable stress.

'Obviously, he continues, 'going to war constitutes a threat to a whole nation, and the decision about war or peace is an important one that affects the lives of many and puts all those directly involved in the decision making process under enormous stress. The "prevailing wisdom" in government favouring the idea to change gear on Saddam and Iraq has contributed to higher group cohesion. And as the Butler report says, "there was a clear view that, to be successful, any new action to enforce Iraqi compliance with its disarmament obligations would need to be backed with the credible threat of force. But there was no recent intelligence that would itself have given rise to a conclusion that Iraq was of more immediate concern than the activities of some other countries (p150).'

The use of language and expertise

Once it had given the go ahead to go to war the government then had to provide the evidence to support the decision. The way in which this was done is another area scrutinised by Brodbeck.

'Further conditions that foster group think are flawed structures and procedures for gathering and evaluating decision-relevant information and a directive leadership style. No evidence for a directive leadership style was reported.

'Instead,' he continues, 'the Butler report directs our attention to several flawed procedures in information gathering and decision making procedures: "in translating material from the joint intelligence committee (JIC) assessments into the [government] dossier, warnings were lost about the limited intelligence base on which some aspects of these assessments were being made" (p113) and "language in the dossier may have left with readers the impression that there was fuller and firmer intelligence behind the judgements than was the case: our view, having reviewed all of the material, is that judgements in the dossier went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available."'

'Furthermore, it says: "we recognise that circumstances arise in which it is right for senior officials to take a broad view that differs from the opinions of those with expertise on points of detail. We do not, however, consider that the report held back from Dr Jones and his staff (which Dr Jones' superiors regarded as justifying the certainty of the language in the dossier) was one to which such considerations should have applied (p138)."'

The 45 minute claim

The Butler report concludes, "that the JIC should not have included the '45 minute' report in its assessment and in the government's dossier without stating what it was believed to refer to."

Brodbeck notes that in the JIC report it remained ambiguous as to what type of weapons the time margin referred to: 'from paragraph 507, we learn that "The intelligence report itself was vague and ambiguous. The time period given was the sort of period which a military expert would expect; in fact it is somewhat longer than a well organised military unit might aspire to."

"For those who interpreted it as referring to battlefield munitions, therefore, its significance was that it appeared to confirm that Iraq had both forward-deployed chemical and biological munitions and the necessary command and control arrangements in place to use them, rather than the period of time within which they could be deployed (p126)."

The 45 minute claim was misrepresented when put forward to the public,' Brodbeck believes. 'According to some specialists, group think leads to an illusion of invulnerability, and nurtures collective rationalisation.

'Overestimation of the conformity within the group by each individual takes place, and self-protection against critique within and outside the group addressing the overall quality and integrity of the group's decision making process is evident,' he says.

'Consequently, when group think is operating, important decision alternatives are overlooked, the risks that come with the favoured decision alternative are underestimated, and alternatives that were excluded early in the process are not re-evaluated.

'Furthermore, not enough time and effort is devoted to gathering new information, the available information is interpreted in a biased way (in line with prevailing conceptions) and plans for emergency situations (plan B) are not developed.

'Another direct consequence of group think is that concerns and doubts about the wisdom of the overall group are pushed aside, thus, the expression of concerns is reduced. Furthermore, those who raise concerns that go against the "prevailing wisdom" are downgraded, isolated, or sanctioned.'

Minority dissent overcomes group think

From group research it is known that minority members who sustain their views and concerns against a dominating majority, no matter whether they are right or wrong, raise the overall quality of thinking, argumentation and collective decision making in general. And the Butler report correctly points out, that "there is a case for encouraging it by providing for structured challenge, with established methods and procedures, often described as a 'Devil's advocate'".

However minority dissent works best when it is authentic, rather than role played, which is what the Devil's advocacy methods would have suggested. It is the authentic minority member who is the most valuable asset for high quality collective decision making.

'Sadly, individuals who happen to be in a minority position are likely to suffer enormous stress and strain. And it takes emotional stability and good coping strategies to sustain an authentic minority position persistent enough for improving collective decision making overall,' say Brodbeck.

'The Butler report points out that there was not enough opportunity given to relevant experts for expressing potential minority dissent. And in their conclusion it says, "Dr Jones was right to raise concerns about the manner of expression of the '45 minute' report in the dossier given the vagueness of the underlying intelligence (paragraph 570), Dr Jones was right to raise concerns about the certainty of language used in the dossier on Iraqi production and possession of chemical agents. (paragraph 572)."'

Taking minority dissent seriously, although it may be more time consuming and straining to all involved, does reduce the risk of group think to inhibit high quality decision making,' Brodbeck concludes.

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For further information please call 0121 204 4549 or email: b.a.l.coombes@aston.ac.uk

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