We live in a groupthink culture where people are discouraged and punished for going “against” a group in thought (really this means thinking differently from others, which doesn’t = being against). This is similar to (but also different from) what George Orwell named thoughtcrime in his most excellent mind fucky book, 1984. Groupthink doesn’t only happen in larger mainstream society, it happens all over the place and in sub-groups, fringe groups and among families.
The pervasiveness of groupthink is an example of one of many contradictory messages in the colonist culture we’re enslaved in. On the one hand, this culture is an individualist one (versus tribal) where the cultural trope is “everyone in it for themselves, at whatever cost”. That in itself is very problematic, and then when it comes to groups, you are literally “with us or against us.” I’ve had radical feminists express this sentiment to me in a variety of ways. And if you’re “against” whatever group (again, this means just thinking differently, not the war-mentality of “Us vs. Them” that some people adopt against critical thinkers), you can be subject to violent backlash in verbal, emotional, physical, economic, or other ways. The colonist culture is very bipolar: on the one hand it is extremely individualist, and on the other hand, its groups often act in extremely group-thinky ways.
I think it’s worth looking into this thing called groupthink. Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird explain it in their excellent book as follows:
If your relatives, church leaders, or tribal council members [or fellow feminists, neighbors, co-workers, or other groups you belong to] assert an opinion or belief that you disagree with (and in fact, you know that what they say or believe is inaccurate or unproven), but yet you do not make your disagreement known and instead go along with what they say, or remain silent, you are not thinking critically. Instead, you are participating in a process called groupthink, where you abandon your critical evaluation capacities to make certain that (1) the group remains harmonious, and (2) you are not rejected by the group because of your critical disagreement.
Although practicing groupthink can keep you out of trouble with your group members by leading them to believe that you actually agree and support what they believe, your decision to think and respond this way can be dangerous and very costly.
The study of groupthink is very important for anyone who desires to become a strong sense critical thinker and wants to avoid acquiescing to group decisions or beliefs that can lead to disastrous consequences.
[G]roupthink is brought on by the group members’ desire for “group unity.” The positive feelings and acceptance that members obtain from inclusion in the group motivate them to keep performing whatever it takes to retain membership in the group; often this means abandoning critical thinking in order to maintain acceptance, peace, and friendship. A consequence of the desire for high group cohesiveness is the tendency to strive toward agreement despite flaws in the group’s thinking, feelings, and reasoning. While there can be various factors that can predispose groups to engage in groupthink, Dr. Janis says four of the most important are:
- A highly insulated group with restrained access to outside ideas
- A stressful decision-making context
- Recent setbacks
- The lack of necessary resources
Janis documented 8 symptoms of groupthink:
- Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks
- Collective rationalization – Members discount warning and do not reconsider their assumptions
- 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
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views
- 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
- 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
The more symptoms present, the more likely it is that groupthink has occurred and that any resulting decisions by the group will be unsuccessful, substandard, and possibly catastrophic. Groupthink can be identified in numerous situations where it is obvious that critical thinking has failed.
When pressures for agreement 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 a low probability of achieving successful outcomes.
Ways to avoid groupthink:
- Create an open climate for discussion and ideas
- Avoid insulating the group from outside thinking. Make sure that all members of the group feel that they are welcome to have a role as a critical evaluator in the process
- Make sure that group leaders avoid being directive and overly in control.
I am a chronically peace-seeking person who seeks and thrives in harmony, but such harmony is superficial when it comes to some of the thoughts and behaviors going on around me. It’s sometimes a challenge for me to go outside groupthink when I find myself in the middle of it because of feelings of anxiety and self-doubt that flood me when people express distaste for what I have to say. I see these feelings as symptoms of the dis-eased culture I grew up in and something I have to keep working to overcome if I want to a) be a clear, coherent thinker, and b) make the changes I want to see in my community.
It definitely gets easier with age, but it’s not fun and can be a lonely place when I’m rejected by people/groups who take personal offense and reject me for “going against” them. This culture is not an easy one to live in, none of us are getting out alive, and changing it is very physically and Spiritually difficult. Groups can be as dangerous as they are safe. Godammit why can’t this culture be gentler, kinder, less demanding, more forgiving? It’s eating ALL of us alive. I think the determining and critical factor is RESPECT, for oneself and others. If respect is maintained at all times, then anything can be worked through and have a good outcome. The difficulty is learning what respect is for those who don’t know, and then practicing it. The colonist culture is rooted *in* DIS-respect, so decontamination of the dis-ease of dis-respect is a daily challenge.
On the other hand, one of my heroes, John Trudell, who is a true revolutionary and clear, coherent and critical thinker, tells people from the get-go that he means no offense to anyone, and that if people don’t like what he has to say, to just write him off as crazy. Great strategy, and one I’ll definitely be borrowing. 😉