Groupthink is more prevalent than ever, and it’s taking us into dangerous territories.
Discovered by Yale University research psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is the phenomenon where people tend to agree with their peers or with the widely held consensus on a topic, even when it goes against what all evidence and logic is telling them. Essentially, it is herd or pack mentality. It renders people incapable or unwilling to think for themselves, question their beliefs, or voice disagreement. Sometimes this is done out of fear of rocking the boat, other times it is done to fit in.
Even when offered copious amounts of evidence that the majority is wrong, people dismiss it and side with the group. Those who succumb to groupthink don’t raise controversial issues or offer alternative ideas or solutions. They nearly entirely lose their ability to exercise independent thinking.
History is riddled with examples of groupthink, often causing unnecessary death and suffering, usually as the result of state-sanctioned violence.
The Iraq War
Take for example the Iraq War. The prevailing narrative was that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The US therefore needed to invade Iraq to stop him. Never mind that there was never any real evidence that he was doing this. Most of the US media began pushing the war propaganda down the public’s throat based on a flawed intelligence report. Unfortunately, any news anchors or journalists who criticized or questioned the report’s validity were fired or criticized.
Consequently, the majority of American politicians went along with the proposal to invade Iraq. 68.5% of the House of Representatives voted for the war, as did 77% of the senate. Although there were a fair amount of politicians who disagreed with the war, notably Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Cynthia Mckinney, the groupthink established by the intelligence community and the media had already convinced enough of them to go to war. Even the prime minister of the UK, Tony Blair, unquestioningly followed the US into Iraq.
In this case, the consequences of groupthink were disasterous both for the people of Iraq and the soldiers sent to fight there.
Religion and Atheism
Another obvious example of groupthink is religion. The vast majority of religious people subscribe to the religion that their family our country subscribes to. Practically nobody reads every religious text out there and then decides which one to follow. Instead, people tend to stick to the religion they were born into.
On the other hand, atheists can also fall into their own category of groupthink. If their family and peers are atheists, then so are they. Some may base their atheism on strong philosophical principles, but most are simply conforming to the beliefs of their community and cultural surroundings. Furthermore, atheists can even be hastily dismissive of religion, writing it all off as ancient fairy tales. But by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, they stay ignorant to the wisdom held in these ancient texts.
As you could probably guess, groupthink is more prevalent in the political arena than anywhere else. Most people share similar political beliefs as their parents, friends and the cultural norms they are exposed to. Rarely do individuals seek out information from the other side of the spectrum in attempt to gain a more holistic understanding. On the contrary, people tend to follow the crowd, at least if the crowd shares their pre-conceived notions about what the “correct” political viewpoints are (the topic of confirmation bias and echo chambers is whole other discussion).
In summary, the political beliefs of the public largely stem from this tendency to resort to groupthink. After all, if everyone you know or see on TV shares the same opinion, surely that is the correct one? Sometimes, maybe. But that is hardly a philosophically sound way of coming to a critical understanding of current political issues.
Solutions to Groupthink?
So, how do we fix this problem?
Well, a good start would be to teach philosophy and psychology earlier in school. We were taught about politics and government, but nothing about the philosophy and psychology behind them. And nothing of the important social, political, economic, and spiritual questions of our time, at least past a superficial level. We were never taught about critical thinking, cognitive biases like confirmation bias and groupthink, or how to engage in debates on highly divisive topics like religion and politics. I wasn’t really introduced to these subjects until university, and even then I have learned more from self-teaching than formal education.
In my view, it is this lack of understanding of our psychological biases, and our inability to engage in real philosophical enquiry, that leads to problems like groupthink. In addition, the rise of social media and digital echo chambers appears to be largely responsible for the increasing political division in the West.
The Right and the Left have both been hooked in by their own versions of groupthink, without trying to understand each other from a psychological and philosophical point of view. They both are utterly convinced that their beliefs are the right ones, and anyone who disagrees with them has been brainwashed. In reality, both sides are brainwashed in their own way, and the only way to reconcile this is by engaging one another, casting off our cognitive biases, and avoid this group mentality.
So, if our schools, culture, and media taught people how to think rather than what to think, and to question establishment narratives rather than blindly accept them as gospel, then our current sociopolitical situation would likely not be so dire.