Re: Groupthink
From: Racheli Gai (
Date: Sun, 17 Jul 2011 10:09:36 -0700 (PDT)
I find all of this very problematic, methodologically speaking, because who defines what's the "best thinking" of a person, or og a group? In previous discussions some brought up the issue of "truth", and how groupthink keeps groups from getting to the truth of the matter, or something like this. How is truth defined, and do we ever know whether what we think is true is actually true, or not?

This isn't to say that I don't think that people can be in situations where independent thinking is discouraged. To my mind, the old kibbutzim were often like that to a large degree: Everyone was supposed to vote for the same party; they all read the same newspaper (which belonged to the party they all belonged to); connection to people who lived elsewhere and who thought differently was fairly limited, and kibbutzniks considered themselves superior to city dwellers etc.; Kids got communal care/indoctrination into the "right" way of looking at things, and so on and so forth. Additionally, since these were income sharing communities, money to go somewhere else to spend on books or other things was very scarce. This did lead, IMO, to a high level of closed-mindedness. Even there, some people managed to escape the chokehold of shared ideology and whatnot. But cohousing are so far from this (otherwise I wouldn't be living in one :)) -- most of us DO have a life other than what we do and experience within our
community, and have friends and meaningful connections elsewhere.
I also disagree with the concept that all people get along better (or best) with people they agree with. I've worked within groups where we really enjoyed each other's company a lot, and meetings were a lot of fun - even though we sometimes had serious arguments. I DO think there are some people who can't tolerate disagreements, and perhaps when these get together you end up with something like "groupthink" (because in such a group people self-select for towing a given line - either because they agree, or don't dare to disagree.)

One more thought: Our educational system pushes for compliance (students mostly have to do what they are told, not work on what they're genuinely interested in) - which ends up with the result that so many people don't have the confidence to be vocal about what they think, especially when it involves disagreement. And because the most prevalent MO in our society is competitive rather than cooperative, learning to cooperate is a large task.


On Jul 17, 2011, at 7:39 AM, Sharon Villines wrote:

At the risk of more fruitless back and forth on the issue of groupthink, a clarification. I had an off line exchange with Joanie Blank on our differing views of groupthink.

Joanie is a psychologist, has taught psychology, and led groups for over 30 years. She is familiar with the literature on groupthink beginning with Janis, and continuing to the present day. Since being presented in the 1950s, the concept has been used by psychologists in many ways to refer to many different causes of groups producing distorted or flawed results that are not the best thinking of the individuals in the group. She is thoroughly familiar with these concepts and was certainly presenting them clearly.

I tend to be a let's-go-back-to-the-beginning person. My own academic view is with any great word like "groupthink" it soon becomes the word to use in many ways not intended by the inventors of the term and in ways that obscure the original heart of the issue.

I was looking at groupthink in its original use to point out what I think is the most insidious aspect of group think. We all know about intimidation and coercion and lazy minds influencing group decisions. What I see happening in cohousing (and other organizations) is that when teams are formed based on self- selection, people who think alike join and groupthink takes over. It is very easy for team members to agree and to believe that they have the right answer because they are on the same wave-length when they began. And new members join who know they will like this team because they also think like the current members.

I never intended to say as some heard that "groupthink makes people think alike," although over time, I do think _closed_ groups do begin to think alike. Shared experiences produce shared convictions. And those who don't share, leave.

"Think alike" doesn't mean identical. Cohousers are not "all alike" but we do represent a very specific range of views. Tea Party members are not knocking on our doors. Of course, all groups are alike in that they were formed around the same aim, in the same time period, with the same resources, etc. In groupthink, that sameness in and of itself is used as "evidence" that the group is right.

Groupthink is one reason why in Dynamic Governance assignments of tasks and functions are not made on the basis of accepting volunteers. Members can self-nominate, but the group makes the decision in discussion by consensus. So if a team of 5 is being put together, for example, out of a group of 35, that team can be balanced to represent differing points of view and experience. Dynamic Governance also requires outside members (your account, lawyer, group process consultant, etc.) to be included on the Board. They open the whole group to outside thinking. Again, you can choose experts who are sympathetic but they will still represent views that are less likely to be subject to groupthink.

If you depend on volunteers, you can end up with a group of people that all just love each other. Bad decisions can ensue because a decision that feels wonderful is can be short-sighted. This is the insidiousness of group think that I was presenting. I repeated below the quotes from Whyte and Janis because I think these seminal thoughts are important.

Sharon Villines
Coauthor with John Buck of
"We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy"
ISBN: 9780979282706

William H. Whyte coined the term "groupthink" in 1952, in an article in Fortune magazine:

Groupthink being a coinage — and, admittedly, a loaded one — a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity — it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.

Irving Janis led the initial research on the groupthink theory. His main principle of groupthink states:

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 against outgroups.

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