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:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warning and do not reconsider their assumptions
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The  majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous
  8. 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.  😉

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6 thoughts on “Groupthink

  1. Zoongitigozi Noodin Kwe says:

    EXCELLENT post!!! People need to become more aware of the tendency of themselves and others to slide into “group think”. It can happen to ANYONE and it’s always a good idea to stop and question yourself once in a while.

  2. lissyc says:

    Feminist Rag on July 28, 2012 at 4:52 am said:
    Hello there, your dedication as a teacher is admirable! Teaching is such a difficult job for many reasons, for me the hardest part would be dealing with the diversity of parents and their varying demands/expectations. Teachers should get paid WAAAAY more because they have SO much responsibility.
    I wanted to comment on this particular thought of yours:
“Don’t speak negatively about teachers in front of your student. It undermines our ability to be the authority figure in the classroom. If I can’t discipline your child because you have told them not to worry about what a teacher says, it disrupts the learning of others. If it were the other way around, would you be up at the school demanding a conference because your child couldn’t learn in that environment?”
    If a kid was disrupting my kid’s learning, I would only be concerned if the disruption was of a hurtful nature (such as bullying). I feel that relationships and how we relate with others is the most important kind of education we get and can give, especially to kids, because the culture we are living in is a rather cruel and harsh one that seems to be more interested in creating “productive” capitalist workers more so than good, kind human beings. As you said, teachers are human and make mistakes, and some are kinder people than others. So if a teacher is unkind or disrespectful to my kid or any kid, or unfairly or wrongly teaches or grades something, I will discuss it with my child as part of teaching my kid how to critically think and not be scared to speak up. We shouldn’t teach kids to blindly obey all “authority” figures. And of course if my kid is being the unkind, disrespectful one, then I would certainly address it and work to correct it ASAP!
    I don’t feel that teachers or anyone else is an ultimate “authority” on anything, and it seems the school system in general is more interested in shaping kids to become obedient, unquestioning people who can sit for 8 hours a day and “work” like robots, and memorize information rather than actually *think* and gain knowledge. Healthy, intelligent human beings this does not make. It’s no wonder why so many adults are depressed and doctors are doling out anti-depressants like tic tacs!
    I prefer home schooling to public or private education not just because of the content taught and not taught at schools, but also because of the harsh culture that exists in schools as far as cliques and bullying go, and it seems that some schools can’t/don’t respond to bullying adequately, plus I imagine it’s sometimes a hard thing to catch because it happens out of earshot/eyesight of teachers, especially with the technology and kids having cellphones & computers. Very troubling.
    Yikes, sorry for the lengthy post, you triggered much food for thought!

    lissyc on July 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm said:
    How sad that you take the opportunity for your children to learn resilience strategies away from them by home schooling. As a teacher, who has spent 5 years at university and many more understanding how children learn and how best to teach them, I find your naivety about your own skills difficult to understand. You speak as if every teacher and school is ‘bad’. interesting, but unrealistic and foolish. When the teacher mentioned discipline, he/she was meaning classroom management, which means using positive ways to manage a group of children. As teachers we use strategies that focus on the positive behaviour rather than focusing the negative. The intention was, by instilling a respect for authority is just that. Respect. Respect for when one person speaks, another listens, valuing all opinions, not calling out of turn. Your comments suggest there is no difference between showing respect to a teacher and being able to think critically and have your say in a classroom. We live in a world that does present many challenges. How shall we teach our children to overcome them if we don’t guide them through while having opportunity to do so? Perhaps your very uneducated view of education is because of your lack of ‘critical thinking’, or even worse, determined by a negative experience of your own.

    • Feminist Rag says:

      Hi there. Nowhere in my post did I say or allude that “every teacher and school is “bad.”” My own school experience, basic and post-secondary was mediocre at best, and learning of others’ school experiences which were far more horrific and troubling is what interests me because these are the people that I am most concerned about, who can’t/won’t be shaped into becoming the sheeple class by “obeying authority” or the particular education that “authority” tries to instill. Education is not a neutral thing. I find it interesting that you think formal schooling is the only way to get an education, and that kids who do have a hard time at school should stay for the sake of “learning resilience strategies.” That is unfair to kids and not something I would want to subject my own child to if my child was being bullied by others. As you said, this world is challenging enough, there are plenty of experiences that can afford the learning of resilience strategies; subjecting kids to cruel social environments such as that of uncontrollable school bullying is unacceptable and seems like an exercise in sadism.

      “The school system” is not the only place kids can learn respect, social skills, and gaining of knowledge. In fact, the most intelligent, critically thinking, clear, and coherent people I know are primary and secondary school drop outs. Also, in this culture, “authority” figures do not deserve uncritical respect or obedience, and that was what my post was speaking to, a macro/zoomed out/bird’s eye view of the colonist culture and its school system which is more to do with social control than educating kids. I do agree that respect is an integral part of being a healthy human being, I just don’t think the school system is the best or only place respect can be taught. Speaking of respect, you may want to exercise it by not calling people “foolish” or “unrealistic” or “naive” as though your formal education gives you a deeper understanding of the issues we’re discussing. I do appreciate your attempt to understand what I was meaning in my post though, and I hope this reply better clarifies my position.

      Here is one form of alternative education that I really like that I think gives kids more education than the mainstream/standard school system:

  3. lissyc, perhaps you should reread the “Group Think” article.

    I find it interesting that you felt a need to drag (by copy&paste) the conversation about colonial education over to an entirely different post, on an entirely different blog. It’s even more interesting to me or perhaps just ironic, that the post is about “group think”. … and also that you didn’t even mention group think…. and all the while your portion of the post (that you felt a need to repost) displays clear and obvious signs of group think. It would seem by your short comment that you are not capable of even seeing beyond the euro-western colonist paradigm, which is in itself a giant case of group think. Perhaps you should look into that.

    In your post you made many assumptions which are not only incorrect but also come off to some readers as borderline self righteous as well as insulting.

    It’s a classic feature of euro-western colonist culture to attempt to inflict itself upon others, some that participate never even realize they are doing it. If you feel a need to spread the DISease of colonization and feel it is good and right then perhaps you just take a peek outside of your blinders… just to make sure all of that self righteousness is truly so well placed.

  4. […] need to watch myself and take care not to slip into groupthink, and not buy into any political positions (or people) that do not hold these values at their […]

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