Neither the Branch Davidians, nor the ATF, nor the FBI, were composed of or led by stupid persons. Yet at Waco, all of these groups made extremely bad decisions. One reason for the high-risk, low-quality decisions of the Branch Davidians, ATF, and FBI is that these groups of intelligent individuals could collectively make decisions much worse than the individuals might have made if they had decided alone.
Many of the factors leading to groupthink were present, on all sides, at Waco. First, in groups that are vulnerable to groupthink, group members tend to value the group above everything else. The social isolation of law enforcement officers from the non-police community has been documented by many researchers. Unquestioning adherence to group norms is likely all the higher in special high-prestige law enforcement groups, such as the FBI, the HRT, or the Special Response Teams (the BATF versions of the HRT). The Branch Davidians, of course, explicitly saw their church as the only good thing in a Babylonian World permeated by sin.(p.644)
Groupthinking groups tend to have certain structural flaws: insularity; no tradition of impartial leadership; no norms requiring methodical decision-making; and a homogeneous background for their members. The militaristic HRT and SRTs, heavily drawn from ex-military personnel, had these flaws, as did the BATF and the FBI. While the Branch Davidians were highly heterogeneous in terms of race, nationality, and social background, they were intensely homogeneous in their ideology.
Groups likely to suffer from groupthink often overestimate their group’s morality and invulnerability, while also stereotyping out-groups. The Branch Davidians thought themselves the only righteous people in the world, thought themselves invulnerable if God wanted them to be invulnerable, and stereotyped their adversaries as the Babylonian tools of Satan. Conversely, the FBI and BATF stereotyped their adversaries as “cultists,” and acted as if resistance to the armed might of the government were inherently immoral.
Groupthink tends to produce self-censorship among the dissenters, as when FBI behavioral psychologist Peter Smerick changed his memos to support the aggressive “tactical” approach that his superiors wanted.
Groupthink is more likely to occur in a provocative situation with high amounts of external stress. In these situations, groupthink is especially likely when the members of the group have little hope for better solutions than those proposed by the leader. The attractiveness of the Branch Davidians’ alternative to Koresh–surrendering to the FBI–was greatly undermined by the government’s treatment of the adults and children who did surrender.
Deindividuation results in individuals becoming less self-aware, and more inclined to go along with group decisions. Rather than taking personal responsibility for their own actions, de-individuated people see responsibility as diffused, and placed on the group as a whole. The diffusion of responsibility leads to more aggressive behavior towards outsiders.
Some social scientists believe that an important factor leading to deindividuation is anonymity, and at least at Waco, the results were consistent with this theory. Except for Koresh, the Branch Davidians were thoroughly anonymized. They were treated–and they acted–as if they were just a mass of indistinguishable followers of Koresh.(p.645)
Anonymity is intensified when the group all wears the same clothing. The HRT and SRT members not only wore identical “assault” clothing, they even wore identical tactical masks, the most anonymizing piece of clothing possible. The individual members of SRTs never would have shot wildly into a building containing women and children. Nor would the HRT members, as individuals, torture children with chemical warfare agents, or destroy someone else’s home. It was only in the context of groupthink, of the diffusion of responsibility, that people could collectively perpetrate atrocities they would never perpetrate individually.
Bad decisions tend to breed more bad decisions, “the tendency to become entrapped in a spiral of ineffective policies.” In the Iran-Contra cases, the North-McFarlane group made more and more commitments to arm the Iranians “because so much had been invested already and the alleged costs of stopping would be unacceptable.” At Waco, the heavy commitment to training for the BATF raid helped create a perceived necessity to going forward with the raid, no matter what. Once four lives of federal agents had been lost, federal law enforcement became entrapped into finding some way to rationalize those four deaths, by achieving a “victory” over the Branch Davidians. The Branch Davidians were even more heavily invested in their previous mistakes. Most had given up their old lives to move to the Mount Carmel Center. Husbands and wives had given up their marriages. To admit that Koresh was a false messiah, not a person who was worth dying for, would be to admit that the Branch Davidians had squandered their careers, their families, and their earlier faiths, for nothing at all.(p.646)
Groupthink often leads the group to ignore risks which affect only the stereotyped outgroup. While the BATF and the Branch Davidians both exposed themselves, as well as their “enemies” to high risks, the FBI’s April 19 tank and chemical warfare assault was a risky decision in which almost all the risks would be borne by the outgroup–even though the outgroup included many innocent children.
The military, with all of its internal pressure for conformity, including adherence to a “can-do” spirit, is especially vulnerable to groupthink. The April 19 assault was planned by the military’s Delta Force, and executed the FBI counterpart to Delta Force, the HRT. The military during peacetime has an institutional overeagerness to take on high-profile missions, while underestimating the risks of failure. Quasi-military units, such as the HRT, likewise spend long periods sitting idle, and may be overeager to contribute their “solution” to a high-profile problem, while underestimating the dangers of their involvement.
How can groupthink, and its resultant risky decisions, be minimized? Three reforms would have been particularly relevant at Waco, and should be implemented by decision-makers in crises. First, every group meeting should have a designated devil’s advocate, who will point out potential risks. Second, special care should be taken so that no one agency or coalition of experts can monopolize the flow of incoming information. Janet Reno, by allowing the FBI to monopolize the information coming to her, made it almost inevitable that she would eventually do what the FBI wanted. Finally, the virtues which make the military such an effective international killing force–such as uniformity, obedience, and group cohesion–make it especially susceptible to groupthink. For this reason, the military should have no participation in law enforcement; quasi-military units such as the FBI’s HRT and the BATF SRT should be thoroughly demilitarized, and should play, at most, a very subordinate role in law-enforcement decision-making.