Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On the psychology of group incompetence

We watched Real Story: The Ripper Hoaxer last night. I hadn't expected it to be so moving - Beryl Leach in particular, describing the loss of her only daughter, gave back the human reality behind the "Ripper" headlines.

I also hadn't expected it to be a story about a massive police hunt being led astray by group-think. The police team were so convinced that the hoaxer was in fact the murderer that they had a policy of ignoring suspects (including Peter Sutcliffe, the real murdere, on nine occasions) who didn't have a Geordie accent or matching hand-writing. This despite there being little convincing evidence for the hoaxer's veracity, despite one of the ripper's survivors - who'd talked to him for half an hour - stating firmly that he had a Yorkshire accent, and despite two of the voice experts putting their reservations in writing - the reaction to this last was to lean on them to shut up.

Anyone who has read Norman Dixon's excellent On The Psychology of Military Incompetence will recognise patterns here. Everything he descrives in the context of military history is applicable to non-military organisations too, and seems to have happened in spades in this case. And anyone who's read Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister's Waltzing with Bears will be asking themselves why the police didn't do a simple check to see if the hoaxer's supposedly unpublicised information (a reference to another murder as a potential ripper victim) had been - as it was in fact - published in the papers. Given the risks of over-committing to the hoaxer being real, a certain tolerance of skeptical thinking and a small investment in research would have been a reasonable insurance cost which might well have saved lives.

1 comment:

Axos said...

I'd say group think is alive and well in the medical profession as well but sometimes you can challenge that.