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Ξ May 13th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Uncategorized |

The origin of the term 'groupthink', essential reading for a party political age.

    Given the series of cautionary examples and the constant reaffirmation of norms, every dissenter is likely to feel under strong pressure to suppress his doubts, misgivings, and objections. The main norm, as I have already suggested, becomes that of sticking with the policies on which the group has already concurred, even if those policies are working out badly and have some horrible consequences that may disturb the conscience of every member. The main criterion used to judge the morality as well as the practical efficacy of the policy is group concurrence. The belief that "we are a wise and good group" extends to any decision the group makes: "Since we are a good group," the members feel, "anything we decide to do must be good."

    In a sense, loyalty to the policy-making group becomes the highest form of morality for the members. That loyalty requires them to avoid raising critical issues, to avoid calling a halt to soft-headed thinking, and to avoid questioning weak arguments, even when the individual member begins to have doubts and to wonder whether they are indeed behaving in a soft-headed manner. This loyalty is one of the key characteristics of what I call groupthink.

    I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant that it tends to override critical thinking. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell presents in his dismaying world of 1984, where we find terms like doublethink and crimethink. In putting groupthink into that Orwellian class of words, I realize that it takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended since the term refers to a decline in mental efficiency and in the ability to test reality and to make moral judgments. Most of the main symptoms of groupthink arise because the members of decision-making groups avoid being too harsh in their judgments of their leader's or their colleagues' ideas. They adopt a soft line of criticism, even in their own thinking. At their meetings, all the members are amiable and seek complete concurrence on every important issue with no bickering or conflict to spoil the cozy atmosphere.

    Paradoxically, however, soft-headed groups can be extraordinarily hard-hearted when it comes to dealing with out-groups, or enemies. In dealing with a rival nation, policy makers in an amiable group atmosphere find it relatively easy to resort to dehumanizing solutions, such as authorizing large-scale bombing attacks on large numbers of harmless civilians m the noble cause of persuading an unfriendly government to negotiate at the peace table. An affable group of government officials is unlikely to pursue the ticklish, difficult, and controversial issues that arise when alternatives to a harsh military solution come up for discussion. Nor is there much patience for those members who call attention to moral issues, who imply that this "fine group of ours, with its humanitarianism and its high-minded principles," may be capable of adopting a course of action that is inhumane and immoral. Such cohesive groups also tend to resist new information that contradicts the shared judgments of the members. Anyone, no matter how central a member of the group, who contradicts the consensus that has already started to emerge is regarded as a deviant threatening the unity of the group.


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