Groupthink…Are You Along for the Ride?
This isn’t a blog about the Apostle’s Creed. I just wanted to demonstrate how the ancient creed heads off one of the greatest problems facing our culture today. Namely, the absolute mindlessness of groupthink. According to “Ethics Unwrapped”
Groupthink occurs when people’s desire to maintain group loyalty becomes more important than making the best choices. People often find it hard to think and act independently in group situations. According to psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”
When we were children we often told our parents that our motivation for doing stupid and/or hurtful things was because “everyone else was doing it.” And we all remember our parents’ wise response: “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” They were, of course, trying to get us to see the value of independent thinking. Groups and crowds very seldom get worked up into a frenzy to help the homeless or collectively turn away from sin. Groupthink easily transitions into mob mentality if there is a charismatic leader present.
Just think about some of the outlandish, hate-filled, horrific things some leaders say in group settings and the resultant applause that is showered upon the speaker(s). For decades Louis Farrakhan has said some of the vilest things about Jews, Christians, and white people in general from podiums across the world. Have you ever heard any “boos” following such statements? No, just shouts of affirmation amid thunderous applause. If you were able to have one on one interviews with people in the audience following one of his speeches, do you really think every person would affirm his derogatory prejudicial statements without anyone else around?
On September 10, 2016, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivered her now infamous “Basket of Deplorables” speech. As she insults millions of Americans you can hear the audience break out in giggles, laughter, and thunderous applause. Since Donald Trump was elected almost every late-night comedian’s monologue has been demeaning, insulting, and even occasionally X-rated in vitriol towards the president. Audiences howl in approval at some of the cruelest and most disgusting “jokes” imaginable. As cynical as I am about human nature, I certainly don’t believe for a minute that everyone who laughs or applauds at politicians or comedians who viciously attack others’ looks, intelligence, or character, actually embrace what was just said. Groupthink, however, demands they act like it.
At the Psychology Today website we read, “Groupthink occurs when a group with a particular agenda makes irrational or problematic decisions because its members value harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation.” Did you catch that? Accuracy and critical thinking (truth) take a back seat to fitting in with the group. If you struggle to think independently, you will laugh while others are being demeaned and clap your hands for a statement that you know (or at least suspect) to be completely irrational.
Nearly 56 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address to the graduating Class of ’62 at Yale University. Being a Harvard graduate surely made the challenge of the speech more daunting. The president knew there was a high likelihood that many in the audience would tune him out just because of university loyalties (groupthink). Look how he addressed it:
Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. [Emphasis mine]
What a line! “We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” It reminds me of something I once read that Leonardo da Vinci said, “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
When did we lose the drive and capacity to reason and think independently? To expect others to give us our opinions? To applaud just because everyone around us is doing it? To nod our heads in affirmation to the most inane and obscene statements? Since when did America’s universities decide that free speech only applies to a particular ideology? That the mere existence of differing philosophies, creeds, and thoughts necessitated the creation of “safe spaces” on campuses?
Why are the grandchildren of the hippies of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s swallowed alive in groupthink when granddad was smoking his weed while burning his draft card demonstrating against “the man” and grandma was burning her bra shaking her fist at June Cleaver? The grandkids have become “the man.” They walk in lockstep with their group reading from the cue cards that have been handed to them. They wear the clothes that everyone else is wearing. “Question authority” has been replaced with “Don’t ask questions.” “Think and let think” has become “We’ll let you know what to think.” The mere specter of debate causes riots now.
As I look at this state of affairs as a Christian and student of the Bible I realize things haven’t really changed at all. Like Hollywood moguls who rarely come up with anything new but continue to rehash and remake movies that have already been made, our “progressive” bent in America is really just a tired old remake going under the guise of “prequel.”
Thousands of years ago, when the Hebrews gained their freedom following 430 years of slavery in Egypt, God warned them not to slide into groupthink when He said, “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil…” (Exodus 23:2). The Egyptians had done all the thinking and decision-making for them for generations. Despite God’s warning, it wasn’t long before they let a few lead a rebellion against Moses and made the golden calf. Then they did it again when they chose to embrace the majority report of the 12 spies sent into Canaan. Groupthink caused them to literally walk themselves to death for 40 years in the desert. They had been warned.
In the New Testament you get the same warning from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
Enter [eternal life] by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14).
Most people are barreling towards destruction. Stick with the many to your eternal regret. Render mindless affirmation, applause, and even “Amen”s for fear of ostracization when you know something is not right with what you just heard, and you can feel right at home with the “many.” But you won’t when they reach their destination.
Finally, Paul enjoined the Philippians in his absence to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). By that, he did not mean for them to devise any scheme of salvation they felt comfortable with. It was more of an admonition along these lines: “You know what is at stake here. You are not going to be able to tell God you were just living the way everyone else was. You will stand before Him on your own; alone. Therefore be very careful and sober about what you believe and how you live it out. Where and how you spend eternity is not based on what everyone else said but what you believed.”
If you are going to be judged (both in this world and the one to come) for your beliefs and opinions (which fueled your actions), make sure that they really are your beliefs and opinions…not the ones given to you by others.