Groupthink

Picture this: You are newly called as the Primary President in your ward, (and an adult convert of 5 years).  You attend your first Ward Council Meeting where the Bishop (25 years your senior) presents a plan for the ward called, The Ten Year Plan.  He describes this vision for the Young Men starting at age 12 where they become Deacons, progressing to Teachers, Priests and Elders.  They serve missions at age 19, return, begin college and get married by age 22. This is the ideal version of the success in the Bishop’s mind.  He solicits feedback from the Ward Council about the plan.  Other council members agree that the plan is a good one.  He asks you, the new Primary President and your response is, “I don’t agree with this plan.  I think 22 is too young to get married and I certainly hope my children do not get married or feel the pressure to get married by the age of 22.  I wasn’t ready at that age and I do not want my children to feel this is the expectation.”  Others snicker, muffling laughs.  I can’t remember anything else about that meeting, except that I was clearly in a minority in that council meeting, (or was I?).   That was about 25 years ago.

Groupthink as defined by Psychology Today “is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform to or the belief that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be fueled by a particular agenda—or it may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought.”

Jack Naneek’s podcast in May explored groupthink, (Mormon Awakenings 5/12/20).  He posited that the pandemic and subsequent social distancing is freeing us from the dynamics of groupthink.  He anticipates things will be different when we reassemble because we have had time and opportunity to think our own thoughts and draw our own conclusions. 

Yet even Naneek cited a groupthink example during a recent Zoom F&T meeting in his ward. One person after another bore testimony that the pandemic was a result of the wicked world in which we live. He noted the presence of fear in the testimonies and how subsequent testifiers reinforced this theme.  Although he disagreed with the reasoning and the fear, he was not able to share his testimony because he had not signed up in advance.  He wondered, (if he could have), would he have taken the opportunity to voice an opinion counter to the prevailing testimonies given that day.  He noted the repercussions that follow when one overturns the apple cart. 

I’d like to explore aspects of the groupthink definition above. 

What is it about the urge to conform that leads groups to make non-optimal decisions?  Is it the need to belong to a group that allows us to suspend our better judgement in order to fit in?  Is it that we do not trust our own judgement?  Do we put too much trust/faith in leaders, believing they know better than we do?  Is it because we have been taught to follow, to obey, to trust?  

Try to think of a group, in which you might disagree with the agenda.  What do you do with the angst within you?  I suppose it depends on the group and how wedded you are to it. If you are not particularly invested, then you may not care enough to try to adjust the rudder.  Or, if you are not invested, you might be the perfect person to speak out because you can take it or leave it.  What if you are invested, if you love your group and do not agree with the direction it is going? 

Do you believe that dissent is impossible?  Or is it that you believe that dissent will not accomplish anything other than making you stand outside the norm? What does group disapproval look like in your groups, in your family, in your ward? 

Symptoms of Groupthink

Irving L. Janis has written extensively on groupthink. These are symptoms of groupthink mentality:

  • Illusion of Invulnerability: everything will work out because we are special
  • Belief in inherent morality of the group: members assume righteousness of the cause
  • Collective rationalization: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil
  • Out-group stereotypes: discounting the opinions of those outside the group
  • Self-Censorship: not clearly stating what you think
  • Illusion of Unanimity: interpreting silence as agreement
  • Direct Pressure on Dissenters: pressure to make decisions
  • Self-Appointed Mindguards: protect a leader from troublesome ideas

What do we do about it?

How do you avoid groupthink? In Forbes (April 2016) Lisa Quast suggests:

  1. Increase awareness of what groupthink is
  2. Engage in open discussions, critically analyze situations
  3. Don’t shoot the messenger, avoid criticizing people who speak out
  4. Assign a “devil’s advocate” so all sides of a topic are explored
  5. Bring in a subject matter expert, when necessary
  6. Document the decision and the process

Familiarize yourself with examples of groupthink that you can use to explain the concept.  

  • The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.  Read here  for a systematic review.
  • Nazi Germany read here
  • Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Guyana Read here
  • The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black Men read here
  • Movies: Mean Girls (2004),  Dead Poets Society (1989)

Chief Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative judge in the US Supreme Court, specifically hired liberal law clerks to his team so he could hear different opinions and foster robust debate.  For a first person account from one of his former law clerks, read here.  

Frances O, Kelsey, MD is a woman who stood up to corporate pressure involving the drug thalidomide. In 1960 the drug manufacturer, Richardson-Merrell, submitted a New Drug Application (NDA) to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (FDA), in order to have the sedative (also used for morning sickness) approved in the United States. Dr. Kelsey was the FDA officer charged with reviewing the NDA.  She found the application lacking evidence of safety.  She effectively delayed and then rejected the NDA until the drug company  withdrew the application in 1962.  By then, serious toxicities were found, including fetal death, babies born with limb deformities or absence of limbs. Because of her efforts countless lives were spared the toxic effects of exposure to thalidomide, and significant regulatory changes were made involving clinical trial requirements in the U.S. For more information about Frances Kelsey read here and here.

Challenging groupthink doesn’t often result in a Congressional Medal of Honor, as it did for Dr. Kelsey.  There is a price to pay for challenging the system,  sometimes a heavy personal price. It’s important to recognize when someone is going out on a limb to challenge groupthink.  If we are in that group, we can support that person’s courage while we explore the content of the information presented. We may not agree with each other, but as Justice Scalia did, we can promote robust discussion of various opinions. 

How’s it going for you?  

Can you cite examples of groupthink in your organizations? 

How do you see social distancing influencing groupthink, if at all?  

How do you expect our church experience to be different, once we are back together in person?

Allemande Left

Allemande Left lives in the eastern US with her guitar-strumming husband. Allemande Left refers to the beginning steps in a square dance. Dancers turn to their corner partner, clasp left hands as they glide past each other, then clasp right hands with the next person as they weave through the square of dancers--half going clockwise and half counterclockwise. It is a way to loosen up and meet the other dancers. As the caller sings, "Allemande Left and Away We Go."

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7 Responses

  1. Wow, lots to think about in this essay. I was once in a meeting with colleagues where the term “broken familyl” was used to describe any family that did not include Mom Dad married with kids. I take great offense to this, since I was in what it called a broKen home, yet it was far from broken. I tried to get them to understand why this term is wrong and hurtful. The response was silence and I realized that I was not getting through to them. I left feeling very sad and alienated. I did not express myself well. Their minds were closed.

    • Allemande Left says:

      You were not heard or else they disagreed because there was an agenda. Broken is a term we should retire. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Rachel says:

    Humans crave and need groups. Many stifle or suspend their thoughts and in order to be accepted. It’s very difficult to challenge the dominant beliefs of your group and risk ostracism.

    Groups are also part of our identity. Identifying with beliefs and ideas outside of our group can bring on an identity crisis.

    We see and experience this all the time at church. Many readers of this blog are trying to find their place in the church (group) while navigating changing and shifting beliefs. Unfortunately, we are often told “you either support the prophets or you don’t… you either believe the church is true or you don’t.” Or “if you still go to church then you support all this bad xyz.” I have to actively avoid saying the latter statement. I understand the importance of having a group identity and community. I just hope that the more orthodox members are making room for members with doubts or concerns to attend and participate with integrity.

    As far as social distancing, I don’t know if it’s making things better or worse. Social media is one of our only ways of interaction and it is so toxic and polarizing. There is no nuance, no empathy, no listening. I’m trying to have more in person discussions. I’m also trying not to look at people by their group. Example “This person is a liberal, conservative, religious, etc.”

  3. Allemande Left says:

    Rachel-thank you for your comments. I agree that church fosters an either/or mind set. People and situations are more complex than that. And it goes both ways, as you said, for those more orthodox and those less so. Both groups, at times, judge the other and categorize them.
    Once we see what is happening we can work to dismantle the groupthink.

  4. Mary Young says:

    I just finished an article in the current BYU alumni magazine about making sure women are heard and valued in groups. It was interesting and well researched, but I found myself thinking of your piece as I read. It’s all well and good to include more women, but we must be treated as sentient beings.
    One man solved his problem with outspoken women (me) by simply scheduling the meeting about moving the library and not inviting me, the experienced librarian. The library is now inconveniently housed in a cramped, unheated and uncooled room. The materials we needed to function had been removed (I found them tossed on the stage), but we were equipped with a huge and useless overhead projector (no fiches) and the largest audio tape player I’d ever seen, complete with partial sets of old tapes. His excuse? “Everyone in the meeting agreed with me.” I don’t doubt it.

  5. Allemande Left says:

    Mary,
    Thank you for reading the blog and taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me.

    I’m sorry your professional experience was disregarded and unwanted in the situation described.

    We can educate ourselves and others while we keep going. Thank you again for commenting.

  6. Caroline says:

    Allemande Left,
    This is such a great post. I had never read much about groupthink before, so I really appreciate all these examples and links. Certainly, for me, the dominant place I experience groupthink is in church on Sunday. I hear the same us vs. the world, black and white rhetoric which grows and feeds as people build off of each other’s comments. I’m certainly complicit because I often don’t feel like I have space to voice contrasting views. I worry that groupthink happens a lot in in ward councils and bishopric meetings, fed particularly by the Mormon fetishization of authority. And by the fact that in the bishopric meetings, no females are present to participate and perhaps give an alternative point of view at times (and in my ward’s case, no people of color either). It makes me sad to think about all the wisdom we’re losing out on.

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