Sometimes a jarring piece of evidence does intrude, forcing a conscious reassessment. For Gioia, it was the moment he saw the charred hulk of a Pinto at a company depot known internally as “The Chamber of Horrors.” The revulsion it evoked gave him pause. He called a meeting. But nothing changed. “After the usual round of discussion about criteria and justification for recall, everyone voted against recommending recall—including me.”
The most troubling thing, says Vaughan, is the way scripts “expand like an elastic waistband” to accommodate more and more divergence. Morton-Thiokol, the NASA contractor charged with engineering the O-rings, requested a teleconference on the eve of the fatal Challenger launch. After a previous launch, its engineers had noticed O-ring damage that looked different from damage they’d seen before. Suspecting that cold was a factor, the engineers saw the near-freezing forecast and made a “no launch” recommendation—something they had never done before. But the data they faxed to NASA to buttress their case were the same data they had earlier used to argue that the space shuttle was safe to fly. NASA pounced on the inconsistency. Embarrassed and unable to overturn the script they themselves had built in the preceding years, Morton-Thiokol’s brass buckled. The “no launch” recommendation was reversed to “launch.”
“It’s like losing your virginity,” a NASA teleconference participant later told Vaughan. “Once you’ve done it, you can’t go back.” If you try, you face a credibility spiral: Were you lying then or are you lying now?
But back to Volkswagen. You cannot unconsciously install a “defeat device” into hundreds of thousands of cars. You need to be sneaky, and thus deliberate. To understand that behavior, we have to turn to a more select subset of examples, such as the Air Force brake scandal of 1968, when B. F. Goodrich built an aircraft brake that many employees knew would fail. When it was tested at Edwards Air Force Base, the brake melted. As in, became molten.
Like Volkswagen’s actions, this would seem an act of madness, pure and simple. (“It’s almost like they painted a bull’s-eye on themselves,” Joseph Badaracco, an ethics professor at Harvard Business School, says of VW.) But the final decision to deceive was, on an individual level, rational—the logical end to a long sequence.
It started, as Volkswagen’s problems apparently did, with a promise that should not have been made. Goodrich, which was desperate to regain an Air Force contractor’s favor as a supplier after a previous delivery of shoddy brakes, promised a brake that was ultracheap and ultralight. Too light, in fact. When first tried out in a simulation at the company’s test lab, the prototype glowed cherry red and spewed incendiary bits of metal. But by the time a young engineer discovered that the source of the problem was the design itself (a more senior engineer had gotten his math wrong), the wheels were quite literally in motion. Brake components from other suppliers were arriving. The required redesign would wreck the promised timetable. The young engineer was told to keep testing.