What is Groupthink?
We hear a lot about groupthink and you may wonder what is groupthink, really? According to William H. Whyte Jr., defining groupthink in1952, it is making decisions as a group and this discourages individual responsibility or creativity. It leads to the exclusion of other ideas with potentially disastrous results. An easy way to define groupthink is as a follow-the-leader exercise with an automatic trust in a frontrunner. It may be a more vocal participant that is supposedly leading you in the right direction. However, when merely following a leader because it’s easier or less apt to cause dissension, it discourages us to think for ourselves. Thus, it becomes extremely dangerous and hinders our growth. It can also hold whole societies back and hinder advancement.
In 2005, a suicide sheep jumped off a cliff and 1,500 sheep followed the first one. This happened in Istanbul, Turkey where after just one sheep jumped to his death, the other grazing sheep saw him and followed. You may laugh at this with, But those were sheep! Don’t laugh too hard…
You can probably find examples of groupthink in your life as you think back to your school and college years. Groupthink can apply to most any stage of life in numerous situations including workplaces, classes and even communities. I’m going to start this discussion with an example at the high school level. Many of our thinking patterns originate during our formative years and groupthink may be somewhat telling in your life upon close evaluation of your life. We’ll evaluate beginnings, outcomes, truth and application.
Evaluate Beginnings of Groupthink
At our high school, it was a big deal when we as seniors could go off campus for lunch. We had waited years for this this day! Our go-to became Carl’s Junior fast food where most everyone ordered a burger and fries. However, I evaluated this choice carefully. According to Calorie King, a Carl’s Jr. Charbroiled Super Star Burger with Cheese has a whopping 920 calories. I’d have to jog almost two hours to burn it off.
Small fries have 222 calories and large, 365. This means lunch alone could consist of 1,142 - 1,265 calories. And this wouldn’t include ketchup, which I love with fries, or any drink. With this number of calories every day at lunch, I wouldn’t look very svelte in the pants outfit I had just purchased at a major discount from a friend who worked at a pricey clothing store. So the big question is What do you do when the whole group is eating hamburgers?
Bring your lunch, of course! A carton of yogurt or half-sandwich were satisfying for my lunch but I had to mentally not focus on the smell of the fresh burgers. Amazingly, I didn’t really miss them. I also had to decide to not be embarrassed, not ordering what the so-called cool-kids were eating. The hamburger incident may sound silly, but I bring it up because defining the beginnings of groupthink in your life may help you further define other instances of group thinking. Passing on what the whole group is doing for a better or more accurate outcome is a principle that can be applied to many areas of life.
Passing up Groupthink for a Different Outcome
It is very helpful to evaluate where you’d eventually like to land, though this takes on different forms at various stages in your life. However, stepping back to evaluate and not just think and do what everyone else is doing is a valuable exercise. There are certain areas in life where groupthink can actually be dangerous and extremely misleading, such as the area of science. In a recent article in Wired Magazine, Kathleen Folbigg was convicted of smothering four of her children to death. She was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
What was interesting was much of the evidence pointed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) for at least two children and the others were merely unexplained, but the records noted all children had heart issues. There was absolutely no piece of evidence that indicated smothering. However, contributions that could have indicated questioning that type of criminal charge were overlooked. The prosecutors instead leaned heavily on her personal diaries in which she wrote about her struggle as a mother, coming from an abusive and dysfunctional family where her own father had stabbed her mother. She was now painted as a bad mother.
The prosecutors leaned on a now disproven theory, Meadow’s Law, which basically states guilty until proven innocent. This was used to emotionally convince a jury, as well as the media, of Folbigg’s guilt. Carola Garcia de Vinuesa, who used advanced genome-sequencing equipment to study the causes of rare diseases, was asked to help Folbigg’s legal team on one last-ditch effort. At this point, Kathleen had already served sixteen years in prison, part of it in solitary confinement.
The Importance of Finding the Truth
Finding the truth is not only good for all of us as individuals, but for societies as a whole. The trouble is that many times new, or the right type of research will continue to be discounted because of political or personal gain.
This is where the dangers of groupthink comes in, with it being easier to nod in agreement instead of bucking the system. When presenting new evidence, Vinuesa’s expertise as a top researcher was questioned and discounted with language that was disqualifying for what she had discovered. This situation happened, even though she had more experience and expertise than any of the legal court’s team.
Vinuesa was obsessive with her research, but this was what she was trained to do. She went deeper into the scientific literature and manually filtered data instead of relying on an algorithm. This led to the discovery of new evidence that should have freed Kathleen. However Kathleen’s fate still remains uncertain at this time until the court catches up with Vinuesa’s exemplary research. This is the difficult side of going against groupthink, especially in any scientific field. It becomes a dangerous tool of control, fear and power for an inordinate period of time, especially if in the wrong hands. It may take a long time to unwind the false narratives when truth is revealed, either with new research or facts that have been discarded for other messaging.
Will the Truth Set You Free?
When you evaluate what is groupthink in its application to your work or career, it’s not as simple as deciding whether or not to have a burger and fries. It may take erasing all the outside chatter and noise surrounding you that constantly tell you what to do and how to live your life. It may even mean changing your inner circle of close contacts and friends. (Women at Halftime book, Chapter 7, Encourage Each Other)
It also may take turning off the noise of outside influence of networks or professional organizations, at least for a period of time. Going back to our definition of what is groupthink, it discourages individual responsibility or creativity. You don’t have to be an artist to be creative, but you should be able to use your imagination and critical thinking to be open to new and original ideas. That is the root meaning of creativity.
What is Groupthink in Your Life?
When you come back to defining groupthink in your life, how can you apply original thinking and the willingness to stand alone on an issue? I can’t remember what anyone said about my passing up a hamburger and fries in high school, but I can remember wearing that special pants outfit for several years and feeling good about it.
It’s easier for many, to sit back and let the leaders lead, especially those who may not normally be vocal or assertive. However, your skills and experience are needed in our world today, along with a huge dose of common sense. Stand up for what is true and if it’s not readily apparent, spend the time to dig and find it. It may take turning down the volume of the voices and messages bombarding you with noise on multiple media channels. But I know you can do it!
Use your imagination and critical thinking to be open to new and original ideas.
Thought Leader, Keynote Speaker, Author
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