Dominic Cummings repeatedly used this dubious term – but it obscures the real reasons why bad decisions were made
• Stephen Reicher and John Drury are participants in the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science
In the seven hours of evidence he gave at the Houses of Commons, Dominic Cummings mounted a systematic attack on the decisions of the government and its scientific advisory groups during the pandemic. These decisions, he repeatedly suggested, were a result of “groupthink”. Cummings used the term 15 times (and his questioners used it a further seven). It was applied to the government in general, to the Department of Health and to Sage. It was used to explain the delay in understanding the threat posed by the virus, in locking down, in closing borders, in building a testing system, in developing vaccines – in fact, according to Cummings, groupthink was the culprit for pretty much all the failures of decision-making that led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
As a result, the term – a behavioural science concept – is becoming as familiar to people as spike proteins or the R rate. Yet there is a key difference. Groupthink is a highly contested concept in psychology that is now viewed with considerable scepticism by those who research group behaviour. It misrepresents how often groups make poor decisions, why groups make poor decisions and how to stop groups making poor decisions. So, while you can certainly agree with Cummings that the government made many disastrous decisions during the pandemic, the notion of groupthink obscures the real group psychology at work.
Stephen Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews; John Drury is a professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex. They are both participants in the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science