By Justine Betti
I was in a social psychology lecture in my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara, when my professor, Brenda Major, introduced the class to the psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink.”
“Groupthink” occurs when a group of individuals feel pressure to agree, abandoning critical thinking and conforming to group values. My professor provided a key historical example of groupthink and its consequences: John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
With pressure to make a timely and unanimous decision, advisors in the Kennedy administration demonstrated groupthink when it gave the green light to American-trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow leader Fidel Castro, despite concerns raised by outside figures such as Kennedy’s court historian Arthur Schlesinger and US Senator William Fulbright. This invasion proved to be a fiasco in which U.S. forces were defeated by the Cuban army within three days.
This was the first time I began to contemplate the connection between psychology and history.
Prior to this lecture, I had viewed them as two completely separate disciplines, with psychology offering scientific explanations of human behavior and history seeking to explain human behavior in the past.
Overcome with curiosity, I immediately jumped on UC Santa Barbara’s History Department website to explore the history courses available. Soon after, I declared a minor in history to accompany my psychology major and pursue my interests in the interdisciplinary connections between history and psychology.
The next term, I enrolled in “History of the American People from WWI to the Present.” With my broadened perspective I began noticing, and more importantly appreciating, that a history minor could help me gain a deeper understanding of how human actions in history were influenced by individuals’ psyches of the time, and vice-versa.
While we were covering the 1980s in class, I noticed yet another occurrence of groupthink. In 1986, NASA was planning to launch the space shuttle Challenger as part of a comet monitoring program. Roger Boisjoly, an aerospace engineer, warned NASA that tragedy could result if the Challenger, built with elastic O-ring seals that were known to stiffen and unseal in the cold, were to launch in the 30 degree Fahrenheit weather of the day it was scheduled. NASA chose to ignore the warnings in order to avoid postponing the launch of the shuttle, unfortunately resulting in the shuttle exploding minutes into liftoff, killing all seven members on board.
I am now in my last quarter at UC Santa Barbara and I am still as captivated by these two disciplines as I was two years ago. By diving into these seemingly unrelated topics, I have found new opportunities to use the history of human kind to explain psychological phenomena that we experience today. We can witness our ongoing racial prejudice in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” which presented ‘colored’ males as monstrous and inhumane, and question why Nixon’s 1971 “War on Drugs” characterized addiction and drug use as a criminal problem, rather than a mental health problem.
Since many aspects of our society’s general psyche can be threaded back to historical happenings, it is our responsibility to acknowledge our past and to use these histories to help ourselves grow towards greatness. As English theologian Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Justine Betti is a fourth-year UC Santa Barbara student, majoring in Psychology. She conducted this interview for her Writing Program course, Journalism for Web and Media.