Image: Image: Roberto Di Fede/Wikimedia

Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba has died. But one of the darker moments in the story of US Cuban relationships is a classic example of groupthink – a lesson we urgently need to re-learn.

“How could I have been so stupid?” asked President Kennedy.

It was 1961, and John F Kennedy and the rest of the United States were licking their wounds after a failed attempt to oust Fidel Castro from Cuba.

Before Castro, Cuba was ruled by a much-hated regime. A popular uprising during 1958 resulted in the overthrow of the Batista government and in January of 1959, Fidel Castro gained power. The new leader said he was pro-US and democracy and just a few months after gaining power, he visited New York full of charm and good intentions. He attempted to ingratiate himself with the American people by eating hamburgers and hot dogs, and affirming his hatred for communism and his desire for Cuban democracy. Who knows, did Castro really believe these things or was he simply trying to cosy up to the superpower on his doorstep? Whatever the reality, he failed. President “Ike” Eisenhower was neither interested nor impressed. A rejected Castro returned home and chose instead to make overtures to the Soviets. Hell hath no fury like Castro scorned.

JFK watched the developments in Cuba with alarm. The lynchpin to his presidential campaign was the promise to halt the spread of Communism – a popular cause. It may have won him the presidency. Once in the White House, he drew up plans for the removal of Castro. The CIA devised a strategy to launch a covert mission to remove the Cuban leader from power by landing highly trained troops onto a strip of Cuban land called the Bay of Pigs, from which point they were expected to draw popular support. Kennedy recruited the very best men to orchestrate the manoeuvre. So meticulous was the planning that it seemed certain to succeed. How irritating it must have been when the Institute of International Social Research (IISR) produced a report warning that such an uprising would not prove popular with Cuban people. Still, the IISR was clearly wrong. The group of people who hatched the plan had far too much collective wisdom for it to fail.

Yet fail it did. In fact, the US government eventually had to send food and supplies to Cuba in exchange for handing back the surviving members of its force. Kennedy later asked: “How could I have been so stupid?”

Truth is, he and his advisors were victims of groupthink, when psychologists talk about groupthink, our natural tendency is to think in sync with the group that surrounds us, they often cite the Bay of Pigs disaster as a classic example.

Soon after, the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to drag the entire world into a nuclear war; all because of an error caused initially by inaccurate groupthink.

It is not difficult to find other examples of UK and US foreign policy mistakes that had calamitous consequences. In fact, so extraordinarily inept are some of these errors that many conclude there must be some-kind of conspiracy. A mysterious group of individuals, following an agenda hidden from the public, have been busy pulling strings, orchestrating a catalogue of apparent policy mistakes.

There is no conspiracy. Instead, all we have seen is evidence of how a thinking group can be extraordinarily stupid. Or perhaps the group can be so blind to the truth that it engages in an orgy of self-justification leading to behaviour that in hindsight seems entirely masochistic.

Such examples of groupthink are not restricted to the modern era. It is valid to suggest that the population of Ancient Athens came to a group decision which sent that state inexorably towards an unwinnable war against Sparta. If one examines Ancient Athens with a certain distorted vision, ignoring the fact that the city’s economy relied on slaves and that women were treated only marginally better, you could say Athens was the most democratic city of all time. Critics of democracy cite Athens and the unreasonable behaviour that grew out of mob rule.

Groupthink is ever present – and can work to our advantage. Would Britain have survived for so long on its own during World War 2 without a national surge of groupthink, embodied by the Churchillian phrase “we shall never surrender?”

Indeed, evolution may have hardwired a tendency towards groupthink into us, as a tribe made up of like-minded individuals is perhaps more likely to survive against a tribe with no consistent set of beliefs.

But groupthink can suck objectivity from us, and relegate facts or the search for facts and truth to that of a minor concern, as instead we follow the group and cheer on leaders who just say whatever seems to appease the crowds, regardless of whether it is truth or lies.