The Challenger case study

Space shuttle Challenger

Groupthink is present in space shuttle Challenger case. One of the worst space disasters was led by flawed decision making process and decision made a night before the launch. In 1986, Kennedy Space Centre experienced the Challenger explosion killing seven astronauts. 73 seconds after the launch, space shuttle crashed. Launch temperature was well brow the previous temperature at which the shuttle engines had been tested and this resulted in an explosion.

Theory and evidence

The final meeting took place throughout the day and evening. This was due to the following decision not to launch due to high crosswinds at the launch site. Discussion continued with a help of teleconference technology.

The Level I Flight Readiness Review is the highest level of review prior launch. This involved the highest level management at three space centres and MTI (private supplier of a solid rocket booster engines). MTI engineers recommended not to launch if the temperature of O-ring seals on the rocket was brow 54 degrees (Fahrenheit). This was the lowest temperature of any previous flights. The recommendation was made one day before the launch. Throughout the ensuing discussions, launch decision was made.

Antecedent Conditions

There are three antecedent conditions for the development of groupthink.

1. Cohesive group

The group worked together for many years. They were familiar with one another, growing together through ranks of the space program.

2. Leader preference

Top level management actively promoted their pro-lauch opinions in the face of opposition. Several managers at space centres and MTI pushed for the launch, regardless of low temperature that was pointed out by engineers.

3. Insulation from Experts (qualified outside opinion)

MIT engineers made a recommendation early in the evening. Top decision makers knew of their objections but did not meet with them directly to review the data and concerns.

Adapted from

Bazerman, M.H. and Moore, D.A., 1994. Judgment in managerial decision making (p. 226). New York: Wiley.

Common biases in decision making

In general there are three general heuristics namely availability, representative and confirmation heuristics. They encompass eleven specific biases.

Cognitive bias

Economists claim individuals are rational decision makers. They collect a lot of information, examine all alternatives and make decisions that maximise personal satisfaction. However, we do not make decisions in…

Heuristic definition

Individuals rely on rules of thumb (heuristics) to lessen the information processing demands of making decisions.

Availability heuristic

The inferences we make about event commonness based on the ease with which we can remember instances of that event.

Retrievability bias

We are better at retrieving some subjects from our memory than other things. Individuals base judgement on commonality and easier base strategies.

Base rate fallacy

People tend to ignore background information relevant to the problem such as base rate. We tend to assume that causes and consequences are related.

Gambler’s fallacy

Simple statistics claims each event in a sequence is equally likely to occur. But individuals believe random and non-random events will balance out.

Small sample size fallacy

Simple statistics state that we are more likely to observe an unusual event in a small sample compared to a large one. Learn more.

Conjunction fallacy

Describes how conjunction is judged to be more probable than a single component descriptor. Intuitively thinking, something appears to be more correct.

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