The Dangers of Groupthink

September 18, 2023 22:47
There are some in China, joined by many in the US, who view a showdown between Beijing and Washington as purportedly inevitable. HKEJ

Groupthink - at an age of echo chambers, hyper-technologisation (through the advent of social media and digital platforms), and intensifying geopolitical competition and rivalry - is fundamentally perilous. And the tendency of individuals to speak and think, to believe and appraise with reference to the group identities of the sources they consult, is a trait that we must most definitely watch out for. In the absence of checks and balances, or constraints and counterbalancing voices, we could well be collectively thinking ourselves into disaster.

What is groupthink? Sociologist and thinker William Whyte Jr. coined the term in 1952 to refer to the systemic phenomenon amongst a group of individuals who avoid raising controversial challenges or objections to one another, and who opt for agreeing to an intersubjectively negotiated, loosely defined, and often only partially justified conception of events. Reality is hence constructed and substituted with by propositions that are least refutable. The search for truth becomes a search for conformity and uniformity. The in-group dominates, whilst the out-group is silenced, then erased. The majority prevails, whilst the minority succumbs.

Groupthink is normatively unjust. It allocates significantly greater credibility and discursive capital - the ability to conduct conversations, to be heard, to prosecute change and actions - to individuals who are perceived to be fundamentally correct, thereby giving rise to an over-estimation of their abilities in decision-making and under-estimation of the out-group’s corresponding abilities. Groupthink creates a scenario where the ignoring, shunning, and disempowerment of an out-group is justified in name of ‘accuracy’ and ‘knowledge’, even whilst there is no objective reason to think that those in the quantitative minority are therefore in the wrong. It is reasonable to think that all individuals deserve a minimally decent chance at participating in social and public discourse. Yet the extraordinary emphasis placed upon compliance and deference to the majority, per groupthink, pressurises those who harbour ‘heterodox’ views to self-censor or, worse yet, alter their own expressed beliefs and claims in order to blend in with the crowd.

There’s more than injustice that groupthink leaves in its wake. If left unquestioned and unchallenged, groupthink could lead to serious decisional errors. There’s a reason why the Tenth Man Rule (as referenced in World War Z) is so vital in the context of collective decision-making within the military. The underlying gist here is that there should always be someone within a ten-person group whose calling-out and challenging the ‘nine-man consensus’ is taken seriously, if not heeded. Just think about the frenzied crowds cheering on the development and deployment of the nuclear weapon in ‘Oppenheimer’; or the crew in the run-up to the sinking of the Titanic, who had been convinced that the cruise ship was unassailable and could never falter. The blind and hubristic confidence of these individuals may seem absurd in retrospect - immoral in the former case, and indirectly contributory towards the shambolic evacuation procedures adopted by the cruise that evening. Groupthink drives us to take for granted assumptions that are neither warranted nor tenable; it leaves us vulnerable to the worst manifestations of our blind spots.

As we enter into an era of great power rivalry that is unprecedented (at least, for the past century) - in scale, magnitude, and intensity, it is crucial that we refrain from groupthinking ourselves into nuclear or AI warfare. There are some in China, joined by many in the US, who view a showdown between Beijing and Washington as purportedly inevitable. There are many across both sides of the Pacific, who enjoy lambasting the ‘other side’ as an existential threat, and contribute avidly towards the ratcheting up of tensions, animosity, and vitriol between the governments, and now people, of both countries. Indeed, the new ‘normal’ on Capitol Hill is to portray China as the ultimate bogeyman that all hands should be on deck in America in order to confront, contain, and curb. To speak or suggest otherwise would lead to one’s being castigated as naïve, an apologist, or purportedly compromised. Similarly, the ascent of incendiary nationalism within China means that to call for a cease-and-desist on the groupthink would result in all sorts of irascible accusations. Such is the fate and state of affairs of the world we inhabit today.

We can sit here complaining about the presence of groupthink, of conformity-induced behaviours, of self-censorship and -engineering of thought to avoid ‘deviance’ all day long. Yet if we are to move forward, it is vital that we go above and beyond lamenting. Challenging groupthink - encouraging folks to break out of the mold of being ‘sheep’ held captive by lazy, domineering, and unapologetically unnuanced narratives - is crucial. This begins with reflecting upon the sources and origins of the content we consume: whilst some may be tempted to dismiss all ‘mainstream media’ as biased and embrace ‘independent grassroots media’, this would be far too reckless and selective - independent media outlets could also be encumbered with hidden agenda and overt biases. A more productive response is to consume, read, and engage voraciously, bearing in mind that all of the information we read today, via mass or social media, should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt and critical self-reflection.

Beyond consuming more extensively and critically, we must also speak up. Be the tenth man in a company of ten, who is willing to boldly, yet rationally, disagree. Be that lone voice that is capable of holding and standing their ground, even whilst the world around them converges and acquiesces to the seemingly inexorable ‘dogma’. Do not bend, do not yield, and do not give into the temptation of appeasing the group and neglecting to think.

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Assistant Professor, HKU