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The problem of Groupthink and the Challenger Disaster

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

The Challenger catastrophe was a very terrifying example of groupthink and how ethics can be put to the background when groups are not efficient. Groupthink has elements that are similar to peer pressure, and decisions will be made that do not benefit nor forward the common goal.

In the case of the Challenger launch, NASA and Thiokol were both to blame for the outcome. In the course of the conference calls held between them, there were some task roles and maintenance roles that cold have been performed better. The roles of opinion seeker and elaborators could should have been clarified because it seems that the main goal of safety shifted to the goal of just being able to launch, which I’m sure had financial reasons behind it. The implications of launching in the cold weather should have been clarified so the managers would have been more persuaded not to launch unless absolutely sure. A typical error of groupthink is risk taking and the feeling of invulnerability; this is a clear cut case. There was also no standard setter, the person who evaluates the quality of group processes. The standard setter would have put NASA’s management in place when they were “appalled” at Thiokol’s initial recommendations and cautions.

The sudden change in Thiokol’s management to comply with the launch after NASA’s claim of being “appalled” showed weakness under pressure and groupthink. One of the defects of groupthink is rejection of expert opinions. Thiokol’s “management” said they found the data inconclusive, but the expert engineers stood firm in their statements and stood behind the data. There was also rationalization and peer-pressure present when NASA’s Hardy sarcastically asked if he should launch next April. He was implying that Thiokol wasn’t being reasonable and not acting efficiently. Hardy was also a Mindgaurd, protecting him and the group from adverse information. Due to these symptoms of groupthink, there seemed to be no alternatives and there was no reexamination of alternatives. They were dead set on launching at that time with no regard to the ethical complications or the disastrous results that could (and did) come about.

In conclusion, all parties involved were really at fault in one way or another; however, Thiokol would be the biggest to blame. They had the power to stop the launch as ordered by Marshall Deputy project manager Lovinghood. He said that if Thiokol persists, NASA should not launch. This gave the power to Thiokol to proceed or hold off on launch. No matter what kind of pressure they were under, they still had this power and could have persisted in delaying the launch. This reminds me of the biblical story of Jesus being handed over to Pilate. Pilate did not find him guilty and had the power to let him go, but was overcome by fear of the crowd and washed his hands of Jesus, handing him over to be crucified. No matter what the group wanted and how much pressure they put on him, Pilate still had the power to decide Jesus’ fate, and gave in. This is very similar to what happened in the Challenger case. Thiokol had the power but gave in to the pressure of groupthink and allowed the launch.



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