Friday, March 21, 2014

Groupthink

As a wandering Armenian and a perennial outsider, I have often reflected on how other people form their allegiances, opinions and worldviews. Thus, when I was first exposed to the concept of groupthink in business school in the early 1980's, I greeted it enthusiastically. In case you don't know, "groupthink" is a term coined by the Yale psychologist Irving L. Janis, who said "I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternate courses of action." Janis applied the term to classic bad decisions that were made by otherwise competent people, as in the case of the Kennedy administration's decision to invade the Bay of Pigs. Broadly it refers to a common type of mistake made by the decision-making bodies of organizations.

Having had this idea seeded in me for many years now, I see it as a key element of human behavior and associate it with ideas ranging from social psychology to group psychosis. If you look closely, you will see that virtually all groups tend to be somewhat ghettoized and cut off from the world, and they often organize reality in ways incompatible with those of other groups. In the U.S., this is quite obvious in demographics. Rural Americans tend to be socially uniform, religious Republicans. Urban Americans tend to be diverse, nonreligious Democrats.

Recently I have been thinking about the phenomenon in academic departments. I have been corresponding with a former philosophy professor of mine who has been engaged in analytic philosophy for most of his life. He and his peers within the philosophy establishment believe that they have made headway in philosophy, whereas I think they have wasted their lives applying techniques that will become historical artifacts within a few decades. I get a similar feeling about creative writing programs within English departments. What is thought of as crucial and brilliant in one group may be seen as misguided and irrelevant by another group and may soon be forgotten.

Of greatest interest to me is how people become trapped by the prevailing beliefs in their environment. Very few who live continuously within a homogeneous environment are able to extract themselves from its received wisdom. If they grow up religious, they remain religious. If they grow up in a military family, they remain patriotic. In most cases, the outcome is positive for the individual, and whether any broader truth is violated seems irrelevant. However, when a more objective outsider looks at the historical and conceptual foundations of, say, Mormonism, he will be aghast. As a thought experiment in objectivity, I like to hypothesize an immortal intelligent being who lives on a planet orbiting a different star. I think such a being could potentially possess greater objectivity than anyone on Earth in assessing the behavior of humans.

If you have been reading my posts, you won't be surprised that I extend my skepticism of prevailing beliefs to what many would consider to be the foundations of American society. That includes the economic system, the government, nationalism and organized religion. The popular ideas circulating now that are considered essential could be replaced with better ones, and perhaps one day they will be. There is nothing eternal about "American values."

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