We enjoy independent thought, they suffer from ‘groupthink’

Nov 19, 2017 by

How the term ‘groupthink’ is a classic example of a rhetorical intervention designed to shut down argument before it even starts

There is an intellectual plague spreading among us, and only a few heroic souls are able to spot it. It is called groupthink, and it is everywhere. We are routinely told that there is groupthink in our universities, at the Bank of England and the BBC. Campaigning for leave last year, David Davis pronounced: “The Establishment groupthink on the central issues of the day has too often got it not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong.” In this he echoed Owen Jones, otherwise not a likely rhetorical comrade, who writes of “the Establishment’s groupthink”, and who recently diagnosed a fellow journalist on Twitter as suffering from “media groupthink”. Christopher Booker, meanwhile, flexibly perceives “groupthink” both in the original arguments to join the EU and in the present rush towards a no-deal cliff-edge, as well as in the consensus on global warming, tolerance of transgender people, and “political correctness”. It is as well to be warned about all this. Evidently we would be in a sorry state without such giants of independent thought. But what exactly is groupthink, and where did it come from?

Most people credit the idea of “groupthink” to the social psychologist Irving Janis, who saw it as an organisational problem. In his 1972 paper, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, he addressed the social dynamics operating in the way government groups make specific decisions, such as the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and the escalation of the Vietnam war. For him, “groupthink” indicated “the deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgments as a result of group pressures” towards conformity, unanimity and so on. But, he thought, organisational systems and structures could be improved to help groups make better decisions than individuals on their own. There was no sense here, as yet, of the modern sense of “groupthink” in which everyone is defenceless against being infected by the same opinion.

Meanwhile, the word “groupthink” had actually been coined two decades earlier, in an article for Fortune magazine by William H Whyte. For him, it was the pernicious idea that what mattered in business and other realms was not the individual but “the harmonious function of the group”: groupthink was a kind of creeping cultural-scientific communism, which freed people from moral decision-making because “the system” would manage things better than the individual.

Source: We enjoy independent thought, they suffer from ‘groupthink’

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