Groupthink and the importance of thinking for yourself

October 28, 2008
Angelo Lopez
It’s always difficult for an individual to go against a group of people.  We all want to get along and be liked by people, so we often keep quiet about opinions when we’re with a group of friends or family members who may not agree.  I learned the hard way that keeping quiet about one’s opinions and allowing other people to think for me does long term harm to myself.  I’ve been very interested in learning about the dynamics of groupthink, the tendency of a group to limit independent thinking and questioning in the quest for consensus and group cohesiveness.  The dangers of groupthink are numerous, from Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s, China during the Cultural Revolution or in the McCarthy era in America in the 1950’s.  While it is good to find a community where one can find love and acceptance, it’s also important to be able to speak for oneself and to be able to think independently.
Wikipedia gives this definition of groupthink:
“Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas.  Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group.  During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking.  A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group.  Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance.”
During my life, I’ve encountered many situations where I’ve been reluctant to express my feelings because of worries of being different from a group.  It could be with a group of friends, with family members, with co-workers.  Over time, though, I’ve learned to express my own opinions with close friends and family because I feel safe to disagree with them and I’m willing to listen to their disagreements with me.  The situations where I haven’t felt safe to voice my own opinion are in a church or political group where the members are very loud and insistent about being right.  Churches are often vulnerable to groupthink and one of the most extreme examples of this are in cults.  I looked in Internet sites for signs of cults and found these signs that cult’s exhibit.  Among these signs are these:
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, visit family members and friends outside the group, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah, apostle, prophet or an avatar; the group/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.
Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
Emotional leverage/Love Bombing – Instant friendship, extreme helpfulness, generosity and acceptance… Group recruiters “lovingly” will not take “no” for an answer – invitations impossible to refuse without feeling guilty and/or ungrateful.  “Love,” “generosity,” “encouragement” are used to lower defenses and create an ever increasing sense of obligation, debt and guilt.
Exploit Personal Crisis – They use an existing crisis as a means of getting you to participate.  They exploit vulnerability arising from: Broken relationships; death in the family; Loss of job; Move to new location; Loneliness/depression, Guilt/shame,Stress/fear
Crisis Creation – They employ tactics designed to create or deepen confusion, fear, guilt or doubt. i.e. “You aren’t serving God the way He intended.”  Questions areas of faith never before examined or explored and attack other faiths specifically.
Motive questioning – When sound evidence the group is presented, members are taught to question the motivation of the presenter.  The verifiable (sound documentation) is ignored because of doubts over the unverifiable (presenter’s motives).  See Opposer Warnings (#2 above).
Information Control – Group controls what convert may read or hear.  They discourage (forbid) contact with ex-members or anything critical of the group.  Ex-members become feared and avoidance of them becomes a “survival issue.”
Coercion – Disobedience, including even minor disagreement with group doctrine, may result in expulsion and shunning.
To be fair, I can say that I’ve never been in a church that would be considered a cult.  But I’ve seen people within a former church use similar tactics to get members to conform.  I’ve seen a group of people isolate an individual to make them more vulnerable to pressure to conform to their views.  I’ve witnessed individuals get ostracized and have their reputations brought low when they’ve left the group and tried to talk about their experiences.  After witnessing these things, I grew afraid of expressing any difference of opinion and it cast a pall on others as well.  I guess that’s one of the disadvantages when any group of like-minded people get together: the group runs the danger of becoming insular as they try to be with people they feel comfortable with and weed out people they differ from.
Eventually I left that situation, and I grew to appreciate the importance of thinking for one’s self.  I’ve been free about my opinions only with those I felt safe with, and I want to learn to have the courage to express my opinions to a hostile group or individual.  In these past few years I got hooked on movies and read books about lone heroes who stood up to a mob.  Sometimes I’d picture myself like Mr. Smith in the Frank Capra movie fighting a lone battle against corruption, or Oskar Schindler outsmarting the Nazi’s to save innocent Jewish lives.  In the real world, I doubt if I’d have that much courage, but I could always dream.  My favorite movie character is Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, a lawyer who went against the disapproval of his neighbors to represent an African American who is accused of rape.
Reading about these lone heroes made me appreciate the value of dissent.  One of my favorite books is by Cass Sunstein titled Why Societies Need Dissent.  In it, he gives a good explanation on why dissent is good for society.  He writes:
“To a remarkable degree, human beings are influenced by what others do.  In selecting restaurants, enemies, doctors, grocery stores, leaders, books, computers, movies, heroes, political opinions, and much more, we often follow other people.  Conformity of this kind is not stupid or senseless.  For one thing, the decisions of other people convey information about what really should be done.  If most people like Shakespeare, admire Abraham Lincoln, and avoid cigarettes, it makes sense to pay attention to them.  For another thing, most of us want the good opinion of others.  Those who reject widely held opinions and exhibit strange tastes they might well find themselves less popular.  Their careers might be threatened; they might even be ostracized.  Ostracism isn’t pleasant.  In many parts of the world, the punishment for nonconformity is death.
For all these reasons, it is often reasonable to conform.  The problem is that conformity can lead individuals and societies in unfortunate and even catastrophic directions.  The most serious danger is that by following others we fail to disclose what we actually know and believe.  Our silence deprives society of important information.  As we shall see, like-minded people often go to unjustified extremes.  Those who dissent, and who reject the pressures imposed by others, perform valuable social functions, frequently at their own expense.  This is true  for dissenters within corporate boardrooms, churches, sports teams, student organizations, faculties, and investment clubs.  It is also true for dissenters in the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court.  It is true during times of both war and peace.”
James Surowiecki makes a similar point in his book Wisdom of Crowds.  He argues that it’s important for each individual in a group to be able to speak of his or her own experiences and opinions freely,  because it adds to the pool of information that the group can draw upon before making a collective decision.  Surowiecki wrote:
“Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.  An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with.   Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms – like market prices, or intelligent voting systems – to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think.  Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each in it to think and act as independently as possible.”
I’ve tried to look in the history of Christianity and the Bible for specific examples of independent thinking and of dissent.  The Biblical passages tend to focus on obedience to God, but many of the prophets and holy people in the Bible have had to dissent from their community and its values in order to obey God.  From the prophets like Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah in the Old Testament to Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament, they all seem to follow this tradition of railing against the social injustices of their society and advocating more compassion and generosity to the marginalized members of society and a strengthening of their personal relationship with God.  It seems like Jesus, John the Baptist, St. Paul and other early Christians spent a lot of time in jail or facing fierce resistance from authority figures like the Romans or the chief priests.  Though St. Paul always advocates a Christian community in his writings, in my eyes he always seems to be disrupting the communities that he’s in because of the strong moral stands that he feels compelled to make.
As Christian history unfolded, many Christian heroes like St. Francis or Martin Luther have taken a lonely road where they went against their society.  My favorite Christian hero in these past couple of years has been Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist of the early 20th century and founder of the Catholic Worker.  A socialist early in her life, Day converted to Catholicism in the 1920’s when she found the same radical sympathy for the poor in the Bible and the Papal encyclicals that she saw in socialism.  This radical Christian vision led Dorothy Day to take several unpopular positions: she took a pacifist stand during World War II at a time when nationalistic feelings in the U.S. were high; she wrote articles in sympathy with American communists during the McCarthy era and when the Catholic hierarchy were stridently anticommunist; she marched against the Vietnam War and supported Cesar Chavez and striking farm workers at a time when such positions were unpopular.  She kept alive the Progressive Christian tradition during the 1940’s and 1950’s until it flowered again during the 1960’s.
I’m still learning to think for myself.  I try nowadays to avoid situations where a group of people can bully me or pressure me to try to conform to their ideas.  Whenever I try to form an opinion about something, I try to read as many different books and ask different people their opinions, to expose myself to a wide variety of viewpoints and weigh their merits before I decide.  And I’m trying to learn to value my own opinions and gut feelings and to express myself even if some of those opinions go against a group.  I leave this post with a quote from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her essay on the need for women’s independence.  Though she’s writing about women, I think it applies to all people and their need to think and live independently.
“The isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self dependence must give each individual the right to choose his own surroundings.  The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear, is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life.  The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a place in the trades and professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself.  No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency they must know something of the laws of navigation….It means not whether the solitary voyager is man or woman.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>