Groupthink and the Importance of Independent Thought

This has been a week choke full of news, with Senator Jeff Flake’s recent speech imploring Republicans to stand up to President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric, the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the growing polarization between conservative Americans and progressive Americans.  With the Weinstein scandal on my mind, I decided to check out the DVD “Spotlight” again to watch the efforts of journalists to uncover the priest/pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church.  In my view, all these cases are examples of the dangers of groupthink, the importance of independent thinking and the necessity of speaking out even if it goes against the group.

The website Psychologists for Social Responsibility gave this definition of groupthink

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making…

…Janis has documented eight symptoms of groupthink:
Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.

Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings 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.
When the above symptoms exist in a group that is trying to make a decision, there is a reasonable chance that groupthink will happen, although it is not necessarily so.  Groupthink occurs when groups are highly cohesive and when they are under considerable pressure to make a quality decision.  When pressures for unanimity 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 low probability of achieving successful outcomes.

I do not think groupthink is partisan issue.  It affects Republicans who are subject to ideological litmus tests and are under attack by Steve Bannon to agree 100% with Donald Trump’s political views.  It affected a liberal Hollywood that allowed sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein to harass women because of fear of retaliation of these men.  I think groupthink is part of human nature and can affect any political group, religious group, secular group.  I’ve seen firsthand how groupthink can affect otherwise nice people and push them to do cruel things to people who are not in their group.

I used to go to an Evangelical church in the 1990s.  The first 4 or 5 years were wonderful.  I made friends, felt close to God and felt a part of a loving community. People assume that all Evangelicals are conservative in their political and social outlook.  But I found that if you scratch underneath the surface, there is a wide diversity of views that people would express privately.  The pastor of the church was a Democrat.  My former girlfriend at the church was also a Democrat and was critical of some of the conservative views of her churchgoers.  

Though there was a diverse set of views in the church, the more moderate and liberal members were afraid of expressing their views against the more conservative members of the church.  After a while, the more dogmatic and conservative Christians began to try to force me to conform more and more to their way of thinking.  They began telling me who to be friends with, who to date and not date, what politics I should have, what to think.  I saw people get harassed for deviating from the conservative Christian ideology of the church. I saw a woman get harassed for dating someone Catholic.  I saw a few individuals get harassed for being gay and lesbian.  I saw an individual get harassed because he wouldn’t agree to be baptized as an adult since the more conservative members didn’t believe in child baptisms. 

A few people privately disapproved of the harassment that we witnessed.  But we were afraid of speaking out.  As I attended the church, I became more wary about openly expressing my views.  After a while, I felt like I was trapped in a cult.  After being miserable for two or three years, I left the church.

I think this type of groupthink mentality affected the Catholics depicted in the movie Spotlight.  They felt that any criticism of their church was an attack on their identities and their relationship with God.  So they were willing to cover up these hideous crimes perpetrated by priests.  They didn’t see that their cover-up was doing great damage to the Catholic Church.  They didn’t see that the Boston Globe reporters who were investigating the sexual abuse scandal were in the long run doing good for the Catholic Church by forcing the Church to deal with a terrible priest/pedophilia problem.

When I read the definition of groupthink, I think this defines the problem of the Republican Party for the past decade or so.  Republicans who have imposed an conservative ideological litmus test and have decried moderates as being “Republicans In Name Only” have pushed the Republican Party more and more to the extreme right.  Steve Bannon’s attempts to remake the Republican Party into a more white nationalist type party and to punish any Republicans who do not agree 100% with President Donald Trump are dangerous to both the Republican Party and to our country as a whole.  Jeff Flake said in his speech against President Donald Trump:

I’m aware that there’s a segment of my party that believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect. If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States.

If I have been critical, it is because I believe it is my obligation to do so. And as a matter and duty of conscience, the notion that one should stay silent — and as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters — the notion that we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.

A president, a Republican president named Roosevelt, had this to say about the president and a citizen’s relationship to the office: ‘The president is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able and disinterested service to the nation as a whole.’

He continued: ‘Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that there should be — that there should be a full liberty to tell the truth about his acts and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.’ President Roosevelt continued, ‘To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by a president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.’

Acting on conscience and principle in a manner — is the manner — in which we express our moral selves and as such, loyalty to conscience and principle should supersede loyalty to any man or party. We can all be forgiven for failing in that measure from time to time. I certainly put myself at the top of the list of those who fall short in this regard. I am holier than none.

One of the things that I have noticed in both a personal level and in the national scene is how mean-spirited our political conversations have become.  People do not only want to win the argument, they also want to humiliate and destroy the individuals that they disagree with.  This has made many people less likely to express their own viewpoints and less likely to articulate a more nuanced view on complicated issues.  Leaders around the world, from Donald Trump to Rodrigo Duterte, have insulted and attacked anyone who disagrees with them.  It has damaged the ability of people to have a democratic debate on important political issues.

Though the American Right is going off the deep end right now, the American Left has also had its moments of groupthink craziness.  During the 1930s, many American leftists held a glorified view of Joseph Stalin in spite of ample evidence of his purges and mass executions.  During the 1960s, some student leftists extolled Chairman Mao while ignoring his murderous Cultural Revolution.  Both the Left and the Right are vulnerable to the dangers of groupthink because both sides consist of human beings with the same flaws of human nature.
That’s why it’s important for both sides to protect the right of people to have independent thought and free speech.  Progressives should protect the freedom of speech of conservatives and conservatives should protect the freedom of speech of progressives.  We should respect the right of group members to disagree and bring up alternative viewpoints. 
Hopefully we can return to that in the near future.

Here is a Boston Globe video on their Spotlight Team

Two weeks after the New York Times published an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, director Quentin Tarantino told New York Times correspondent and CBS News contributor Jodi Kantor he feels ashamed for doing nothing after knowing about accusations against Weinstein for decades. Kantor, who broke the Weinstein story with colleague Megan Twohey, joins “CBS This Morning” to discuss the growing number of voices including actress Lupita Nyong’o

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks joined Judy Woodruff for a PBS News Hour discussion on the week’s news, including Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s denunciation of the Trump presidency and his decision to not seek re-election, the impact President Trump has on Republican politics and whether #MeToo is a turning point for men and sexual harassment

Groupthink occurs when people’s desire to maintain group loyalty trumps all other factors, including abiding by their personal code of ethics. This video is part of Ethics Defined, an animated library of more than 50 ethics terms and concepts from Ethics Unwrapped.

A scene from Dead Poets Society illustrating groupthink

About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Angelo Lopez has had illustrations published in Tikkun Magazine, the Palo Alto Daily News and Z Magazine. From April 2008 to May 2011, Angelo's cartoons were regularly published in the Tri-City Voice, a weekly newspaper that covers the Fremont, Hayward, Milpitas, Neward, Sunol and Union City areas in California. He did a political webcomic starring his cartoon character Jasper for the progressive blogsite Everyday Citizen. Since December 2011, Angelo does a regular weekly political cartoon for the Philippine News Today, a Filipino American newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Angelo is a member of the Sunnyvale Art Club, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. During the 1990s, he was a member of the part-timer workers SEIU unit in the city of Sunnyvale. Angelo won the 2013, 2015 and 2016 and 2018 Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning for newspapers with a circulation under 100,000. He has also won the 2016 RFK Book and Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoons. Angelo won first prize for the Best of the West contest in 2016 and third prize in 2017. Angelo is married to Lisa Reeber. They enjoy taking walks, watching movies and hanging out with their nieces.
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