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What's Driving Growth in "Groupthink"?

How to avoid this seductive yet destructive mentality.

Key points

  • The pandemic, modern technology and increasing inequalities have supercharged groupthink.
  • Tribal thinking is natural and comfortable but it can dangerously suppresses critical thinking.
  • By inviting a diversity of people, views and news into our lives we can challenge contemporary echo-chambers.
Ryoji Iwata/ Unsplash
Source: Ryoji Iwata/ Unsplash

It’s easy to see “groupthink” in the world today and to recognise that it is getting worse rather than better. It’s harder to acknowledge it or counter it in ourselves.

But take a second and ask yourself – honestly - what are your top three news sources? Are they fundamentally different to what your closest friends are reading? When was the last time you searched for news somewhere challenging?

“Groupthink” was first coined by Irving Janis to describes how people can inadvertently block critical thought so they can fit in with their group or tribe.

Of course, this propensity to cluster into like-minded groups is a natural, evolutionary instinct. Plus, it has benefits. Our early ancestors were largely able to survive due to the communities they formed, founded on trust, cohesion and mutual interest. As a relational species, our desire to belong is a powerful human need.

However, three modern forces are now accelerating groupthink, with dangerous consequences.

First, the stress of the global pandemic has pushed us into the comforting arms of our tribes. In times of crisis, this is a common human instinct. Belonging and safety are even more valued when we face high risks, isolation and fear. Identity politics debates, Trump supporters storming the capital and even some conspiracy theories are likely to have been fuelled by the stresses of lockdown.

Second, modern technology supercharges groupthink. In fact, modern algorithms are designed to do exactly that. Today, we can select our news sources much more than ever before. Just think, how many times have you been recommended a news article that directly counters your existing beliefs?

Finally, we cannot ignore rising inequality and division in society. Those profiting are often looking for news that reinforces one view of the world whilst those who are losing out are frequently looking for an alternative. This has forced people into rabbit holes, where the same news stories are circulated amongst similar groups, mutually reinforcing their experiences.

Fox News and similar opinion focussed channels profit from these trends. Here in the UK, we seem to be following suit with the controversial launch of GB News this summer.

Groupthink is seductive yet destructive. It lures us in by offering a sense of security, familiarity and community, however, in the long run its effects can be dangerous.

As writers like Tom Baldwin in ‘Control Alt. Delete’ have described – along with other writers on this site - groupthink can reinforce division, erode tolerance, increase factionalism and damage political decision making.

At a more personal level, groupthink can be a source of stress, as we become hyper-aware of “out-groups” who we perceive to be threatening enemies. It can stunt our resilience, personal growth and networks.

So, what can we do to overcome groupthink? Here are three ideas.

The best way to disrupt tribal mentality is to welcome more diverse voices into your circle. Make a list of your top 10 ‘go to people’ in life. Now look at this list and ask yourself how diverse it is in terms of age, social class, race or values. Ask yourself who you might need to connect with to get more diverse perspectives into your life.

In gatherings with people, experiment by playing ‘devil’s advocate’ or invite someone else to do so or invite the group as a whole to ask, “What would others who might not agree with us say?”

When it comes to the media, make a conscious effort to seek out different sources; have the courage to open yourself up to challenging views. Some news sites can allow you to select a randomly allocated article a day. Choosing this option can help you widen your perspectives beyond your own obsessions and reverse the effects of echo-chamber algorithms. Better media regulation would help solve this problem at source.

Of course, the irony is that those reading this article will likely hold similar interests and worldviews. You also probably have some interest in eroding groupthink if you got beyond the title. Now you've reached the end, try to hold on to these lessons - and maybe even forward them on.

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