“When all think alike, no one thinks very much.” – Walter Lippmann, 2 times Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist
Free-thinkers will all struggle at times to comprehend why mainstream viewpoints can remain unquestioned by those around them. Why people will aggressively push the dominant viewpoint even when it’s outdated, unhelpful, or even blatantly contradicted by evidence. Why these viewpoints leave no room for others to hold differing ones, and complete conformity is often the end goal, even though free-thinkers advocate individual freedom and choice.
How can free-thinkers comprehend the static viewpoints many hold about the important issues that affect our lives? Issues that free-thinkers see as demanding continuous, rigorous debate and evaluation, and an openness to adaptation and change. Issues regarding lifestyles, food, the environment, animal welfare, nutrition, health, war, peace, human diversity, all manner of social systems, parenting, governments, politics, education, science, religion and spirituality.
I have found one of the most powerful influences in life is social system regulation and stability. When one person disagrees with us we can shrug it off, but when several people disagree with us the effect is very powerful, our ability to reality-test is being compromised. For asking as little as an open question or sharing an alternative viewpoint, others may automatically experience our actions as offensive, and we can be ostracised to the out-group of our society.
In 1972 social psychologist Irving Janis coined “groupthink,” a term that describes this phenomenon. The Psychologists for Social Responsibility summarise groupthink thusly:
“…[Groupthink] occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of ‘mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.’ (Janis, 1972, p.9) Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.
When pressures for unanimity seem overwhelming, members are less motivated to realistically appraise the alternative courses of action available to them. These group pressures lead to carelessness and irrational thinking since groups experiencing groupthink fail to consider all alternatives and seek to maintain unanimity. Decisions shaped by groupthink have low probability of achieving successful outcomes.”
8 Symptoms of Groupthink
(Janis, 1982, adapted from The Psychologists for Social Responsibility)
- Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks. Ignoring group and individual member vulnerabilities leads to incomplete and skewed risk assessments.
- Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions. Everything can be, and is explained away.
- Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary. Ad hominem attacks are a sign of this.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views. Alternative viewpoints are automatically experienced as offensive and controversial.
- Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
- Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous. Silence is taken as consensus.
- Self-appointed “mindguards” – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions. Organizations, astroturfers, and propogandists perform these roles.
Why Groupthink Has Gone Global
I believe numerous factors have contributed to the current dominance of groupthink. We live in increasingly competitive societies. Admitting to confusion or error exposes our vulnerability, and being vulnerable when we are surrounded by others seeking to one-up us in the hierarchy is often dangerous. We learn to fear our vulnerability and do whatever it takes to avoid it, including seeking the safety of the group by complying with their dominant viewpoints, thereby avoiding the accountability of making errors.
We have social systems (parenting, education, work, law) which teach us that obedience, conformity, and fear of authority are valued over advanced ethical and moral reasoning, over free, critical, and creative thought. We are increasingly a global collective pulled from such differing lives, perhaps coaxing us into premature aggreeableness on many issues, just to feel some sense of connection, belonging, and safety. Finally, all manner of organizations and individuals have found their interests can be well served by fostering and harnessing the mechanisms of groupthink.
So how can free thinkers exist in an age of global groupthink? The biggest lesson I am learning is to not fall victim to groupthink ourselves. All viewpoints can create groupthink if information sources and groups are too insular. To be comfortable evaluating the full spread of information requires that we are in touch with our human capacity for vulnerability.
Vulnerability allows us to be accepting of the fact that trial and error and continuous revision and update are part of the process of authentic learning and quality decision-making. It’s knowing that we may be wrong and confused many times as we work it through, and that’s okay. Vulnerability allows us to harness the confusion conflicting information may cause in us to drive further learning, to go there, rather than being consumed by frustration, fear, and shame.
On communicating alternative viewpoints when I can feel I am being pressured into self-censorship by groupthink, I am finding it best not to use groupthink tactics myself. I try to present information as neutrally as possible, to source quality (groupthink-free) information, and to let arguments stand on their own merits rather than on manipulative, emotionally charged rhetoric. Overall, I try to be respectful of the vulnerability of other humans and their right to draw their own conclusions. In my own experience, fostering a sense of comfortability with vulnerability acts as a strong antidote to groupthink.
Janis, Irving L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Janis, Irving L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Second Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
If interested you can read more about Irving Janis and groupthink theory here: http://www.psysr.org/about/pubs_resources/groupthink%20overview.htm