Is “Groupthink”a Problem?

One cannot, of course, answer that question without first defining the word. Although it had been used by others earlier, it is generally accepted that groupthink, as it is now understood, was first properly analysed and defined by Irving Janis in 1971. These are the passages usually quoted from his extensive work on the subject:

“I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.

“The main principle of groupthink, which I offer in the spirit of Parkinson’s Law, is this: The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups.”

Janis was concerned with groups which were  charged with making decisions. His prime examples of mistakes made as a result of groupthink were decisions made by US governments (Bay of Pigs, failure to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbour etc.). But the word is now also widely used to denigrate the opinions of sections of the general public as well as the policies of genuine decision makers. It is quite common, for instance, to come across comments in social media from supporters of both sides in the great Brexit debate describing the alleged thought processes of those on the other side as being examples of groupthink. Indeed, it does seem to be the case that many users of sites like Facebook and Twitter restrict their reading on those sites to comments from people with whom they expect to agree. Others have suggested that this is a problem because it leads to groupthink which in turn is inclined to lead to faulty reasoning.

I have to say that my own experience on Facebook does not support this theory. But that is probably just due to my good fortune in having many facebook friends whose political opinions are quite different from my own. Several of those friends are kind enough to read my pieces and, in a thoroughly civilised way, to express their disagreement with me in their own comments. They are prepared to debate with the “outgroup” rather than, as Janis put it, Stereotyping those who are opposed to the ingroup as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.” I do know that, as a generalisation, it is true that many users of social media restrict their reading to posts by people with whom they expect to agree. That is just as much the case for those on the Right as it is for those on the Left. That said, so long as those people get out into the real world and meet people with differing opinions, I doubt whether the phenomenon is really all that troubling. Newspaper readers have, since the beginning of newspapers, tended only to read those ‘papers whose opinions they approve. Again, I was different. But that was because, when I was in my teens, my splendidly right-wing Daily Telegraph journalist father constantly encouraged me to read the Guardian as well as the Times and Telegraph on the grounds that the Guardian’s leaders were (in those days) exceptionally well-written.

But I do have a theory of my own about MPs and groupthink. For about three years, from 1976 to 1979, I worked in the House of Commons as a research assistant to a Conservative MP. Only about a dozen backbenchers had research assistants. There were two smallish rooms set aside for us. MPs’ secretaries were herded together, irrespective of Party, in various open plan areas of the Parliamentary estate. MPs themselves were allocated small spaces in cramped, shared offices. The result was that MPs  spent a great deal of their time, when not in the chamber, socialising in the various bars and cafeterias with other MPs. And, this is what would horrify many of the present crop of legislators, Tories, Socialists and Liberals got on together splendidly well.

Everything is now quite different. To start with, the MP’s job is now, in order to encourage women to seek election, a nine to five job. All those hours at night which led members to the bars have gone. But even more worryingly, MPs have now acquired for themselves lavish offices in which they spend their days surrounded by a bewildering number of secretaries, researchers, speech writers etc. They see themselves as being like Senators or Congressmen in Washington. Each has his or her own little empire. Most of them hardly ever, except for Prime Minister’s Questions or the budget, go into the chamber. Of course, they still have to vote, which involves going into the lobbies, but that may not continue for too long: there are strong moves to change to electronic voting so as not to put members to the bother of having to leave their offices and possibly having to engage in tedious conversation with political opponents in the Members’ Lobby.

What are now missing from the House of Commons are the informal, civilised political discussions between members of opposing parties. Yes, of course, MPs do come across people who disagree with them when they conduct their constituency surgeries. But, sadly, you have to look far and wide to find MPs, these days, who honestly think that the opinions of non-members who disagree with them deserve any respect at all. Those lavish offices and numerous staff have convinced most of them that they are vastly superior to the rest of us. There are, of course, splendid exceptions on both sides of the House, but most of the lobby fodder now think they are much grander than their predecessors did.

The result of all this, I suspect, is that groupthink is becoming a serious problem in the House of Commons. And, though I hate to say it, I have an awful fear that Downing Street is not immune. It is beginning to look as though Mrs May thinks of her mini-group, consisting of Fiona Hill, Nick Timothy and herself, as being the only body in government which gets everything right all the time. That, could well lead to a “deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments”.

Charles

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14 thoughts on “Is “Groupthink”a Problem?

  1. I respectfully disagree, Charles, about the group think “us and them” syndrome prevalent in social media, although you are probably right that this is now infecting the House of Commons.

    The abuse hurled at those who think differently on social media, the internet, in and indeed on the now defunct MyTelegraph site was quite disturbing. It prevents sensible discussion and indeed resulted in some very unpleasant consequences for those who expressed a different point of view. Differences of opinion are healthy and should be encouraged, but this is not always the case.

    There was and is scant respect for differing opinion, no seeking of any sort of common ground, and little room for critical thinking.

    Scapegoating, intimidation and following the crowd is all in evidence, but thank goodness there are some pockets of sanity left for those of us who prefer a genuine and civilised exchange of views.

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  2. Quite agree Charles. Unless one engages with people who think differently (or in the case of Conservative supporters, wrongly), however can anyone be sure that your own ideas have value? For expressing my doubts about the EU on FB, I received enormous abuse, most of which can be boiled down to the phrase used by one person with whom I used to be very friendly: ‘how can you think that way when all of our friends do not?’ : which is not the most intellectual argument i have ever heard.

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  3. Referring to Charles’ comment earlier about inadequate people being drawn to Facebook and Araminta’s comment re abuse hurled at those who think differently from the group led me to wonder if Monty Python hadn’t prophesied the perils of social media some forty years ago.

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  4. Given the definition of Groupthink here, my personal experience is that it is vastly more prevalent amongst left-wingers and liberals. At any dinner party, if the conversation moves to politics, the socialist(s) will be totally intransigent. Right-of-centre people like me can give ground and accept a particular point – socialists just turn up the volume and get angry.

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