We’ve all followed the pack at some points of time in our lives. Be it decisions about what kind of studies to pursue, which rat race to run, which Beyblade to buy or which new friend to include in our otherwise exclusive gang. Why we like to do so is because it’s easier than thinking for oneself. Once you figure out how this same thought process affects government policies, major industries, workplace regulations, national elections, and other such important-sounding things, you realise that maybe even important people, unlike us, have an inherent laziness seen in their readiness to accept the easiest narrative. This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
This is what Irving L Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University, set out to establish when he pioneered the initial research on groupthink - a term inspired by doublethink, the phenomenon of accepting two contradictory beliefs because of political propaganda (the term was coined by George Orwell in his novel 1984). Janis believed that groups that suffered from groupthink had some common characteristics among them. He identified 8 common symptoms in his original paper: invulnerability in the belief that they can never be defeated, rationalising all sorts of warnings that hint towards an adversity that the group wouldn’t prefer, blind faith in the group’s moral high ground without actually considering the consequences, stereotyping the enemy, peer pressure, self-censorship, unanimity and mindguards that prevent unfavourable but true information from changing the group leader’s decision. It’s also very interesting to think of group dynamics in this way. Ideally being in a circle of friends must mean that you find solace in it and you can gleefully say anything without feeling the need to censor yourself. If this circle has some unspoken ideals that are conditions for you to remain in it, the phenomenon of groupthink arises.
Groupthink offers a sense of comfort. Think of the first time you left for college, unshackled by the rules that bound you in school. You were probably afraid of the amount of freedom you had, of how alone you were. You would rather go back to a time when you were governed by rules, at home, because at the very least there was someone who would take care of you, every step of the way. You don’t want to be part of this ugly, competitive world and instead of sorting life out for yourself, you’d rather have someone else do it.
It’s interesting how many instances from history one can draw in order to fit this model. Janis advances his argument about groupthink, primarily, by talking about the Bay of Pigs invasion that inevitably led to the defeat of the CIA-led American personnel. Janis provided proof of the mechanisms that the Kennedy administration had in place, such that only the anti-communist narrative could prevail in their decisions, with little space left for dissent. They believed that, as a communist nation, Cuba had very little firepower against the capitalist might of the US. Arthur Schlesinger, one of the members of Kennedy’s circle, was an active dissenter but he was constantly suppressed. In a similar vein but far worse off is the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration truly believed they could ride the wave of American integrity being threatened abroad and communists being inherently evil despite being told that it was unlikely that they could defeat the Viet Cong. Not only did they end up losing horribly but also lost the trust of the soldiers, who had been sent on government orders, and the American public that saw very little wrong in having leftist leanings. The government earned the wrath of a generation that decided to pour their pain into anti-war music, psychedelics and alternative living. Lesson learnt: don’t piss off people who can become the future Rolling Stones or Black Sabbath.
The US isn’t the only nation to have fallen prey to this. The Chernobyl tragedy speaks for why unwavering belief in any ideology, especially one that prioritises the nation over its citizens, is the surest route to disaster. The Soviet Union’s adherence to not leaking any information about the nuclear power plant, its belief that it was virtually impossible for any Soviet construction to fail, let alone one that displayed its true might in a cold war, and immediate dismissal of scientific backing behind what could happen was what caused Mikhail Gorbachev to proclaim the Chernobyl disaster as the event that led to the collapse of the USSR. Nazi Germany is an even better example; people were wilfully ignorant of the dictatorship’s treatment of Jews in concentration camps. They believed that the power of the fatherland could extend everywhere without consequence.
Groupthink is not a thing of the past either. In the present, groupthink is how groups of people become alienated from other ideas. Elite, educated liberals of the day choose not to explain their stance to people who oppose them, assuming the opposition to be inherently stupid. The same ‘inherently stupid’ then collectivise and assume majority power. Thereafter, even if someone from this group is presented with an alternative rationale, they will choose to reject it due to the distrust that has already been formed. This is best exemplified in how, in an age where political correctness has become a ‘necessity’, anyone with a contrary view of things is bashed instead of educated. This is not to say that all political correctness is unwarranted. However, if liberals choose to deride rather than increase awareness then they are simply contributing to the aforementioned alienation. On the other hand, conservatives around the world (who often overlap with the aforementioned ‘inherently stupid’) stick to societal norms that have existed for ages, even if they’re regressive. Groupthink is often the basis for dinner table conversations that revolve around politics; opposition to the favourite narrative, if any, will be met with loud, sharp words. These dynamics are used to the advantage of politicians like Donald Trump, who know how to appeal to their voter base.
Groupthink extends beyond politics. It led to the subprime crisis in 2008. The financial industry ardently believed that no rational human being would ever default on his/her home loan. However, they took this to mean that loans could be given to anyone and everyone, and then they built complex securities based on these loans that were dependent on each other. The dot-com bubble in the early 2000’s is a good example too. The internet was the hottest property that was virtual, and people were naturally excited about its potential. This sentiment led to massive overvaluation of companies that merely had a website which combined with tech companies prioritising growth over profit and cash flow stability, led to the downfall of a number of firms. It is happening even today, with startups like Uber and WeWork launching their initial public offerings. WeWork is currently burning cash, and it has been subject to lots of scrutiny by the market. Adam Neumann, the founder, was recently ousted from the post of CEO. Uber took a huge plunge on its first day of going public. This shows how groupthink is responsible for hype value. Brands like Supreme, that rely simply on their logo being printed on what would otherwise be a plain white T-shirt, have the power of hype working in their favour. This hype has no concrete basis like quality. It builds up through targeted marketing.
How does one escape groupthink? Most articles state one method right off the bat: create awareness of critical thinking skills that lead to thoughtful criticism. It might just be the case that what we do not wish to hear is what truly makes sense to us at times. Silence isn’t proof of consent from members. People who do not speak up must be encouraged to talk, since it’s entirely possible that they don’t want to only out of the fear of being chastised. Another way is to have the leader of the group take a poll before they announce their opinion. In that way, especially if the poll is anonymous, those who were not comfortable providing a perspective contrarian to the existing status quo can freely say what they want to. Another way is to appoint a devil’s advocate specifically for this purpose, or a red-team that makes a B-plan in contrast to yours.
Groupthink offers a comfortable seat where you may not have to do a lot of thinking, or take a lot of responsibility. If a decision goes horribly wrong, then no single individual can be held accountable. However, if everyone in a group feels a heightened sense of pride towards the goal of a group, and can be made to believe that their actions have a large impact, positive or negative, then decisions will be taken with greater forethought and discussion. In times that value nuanced discussions over various ideas, we must be heading towards the ideal of free-flowing thought instead succumbing to peer pressure.
Subscribe to The Pangean
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox