Monday, December 30, 2019

Mental and Interpersonal Mechanisms of Groupthink Maintenance

                                                                                          PatientSafe Network

This post is a shortened version of one of my chapters in the upcoming multi-author book, Groupthink in Science.

One of the defining characteristics of groupthink is something called “willful blindness.” People often know things but choose to pretend that they do not, in order to fit in with larger social groups. They lie to everyone including themselves They refuse to look at any sources of information that might call into question any beliefs that help them to “convey and conform to” the needs of the various groups to which they belong. The paradox of such willful ignorance is that in cases in which you are motivated to avoid looking at something, you have to know where not to look! In other words, you had to have seen it.

The reason that we all do this has to do with a significant characteristic of natural selection during biological evolution. Conforming to the values and requirements of our kin group or tribe has high adaptive value. Genes that contribute to the survival of the tribe or clan to which we belong, as opposed to those that only benefit individuals, are highly likely to be passed on. This process is known as kin selection.

While sacrificing oneself for a group – such as the widespread willingness to die for one’s country in a war – is not beneficial for individual survival, it does contribute significantly to group survival. Nonetheless, it can sometimes actually harm a group’s interests in the long run. The term pathological altruism has been used to describe situations in which this tendency to self-sacrifice backfires and harms not only the individual making the sacrifice but his or her group as well.

Many mental mechanisms and tricks have evolved to help us lie to ourselves to achieve these purposes. Interestingly, we also tend to assist our fellow group members in using these tricks on themselves. Groups as a whole also have a variety of mechanisms for keeping certain information censored. The mechanisms are the subject of this post.

They appear at the level of the individual, where they include the defense mechanisms described by psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapists, and the irrational beliefs enumerated by cognitive behavioral psychotherapists. They also appear at the level of the family or kin group, where they are called family myths. They also exist at the level of cultural groups, where they are called mythology.

Defense mechanisms were originally defined as mental processes, typically subconscious, employed by individuals to avoid ideas or impulses that are unacceptable to their own personal value system, and to avoid the anxiety that those ideas or impulses therefore created. Notice, however, that these mechanisms do not just serve an internal purpose within our mind, but an interpersonal one as well. We may, for example, compulsively try to act in the opposite way that an impulse that is unacceptable to our group would dictate (reaction formation), or displace our anger at one person within our kin group onto another outside, safer person to avoid tension within our group.

Irrational Beliefs are often automatic in that they come to us without any conscious effort in response to an environmental event, and they quickly lead to specific behavior patterns. They are often said to be subliminal, which is a similar concept to subconscious. If you, for example, catastrophize (imagining every single thing that could possible go wrong if you did something, no matter how unlikely) about your engaging in a course of action not condoned by your group, you will indeed scare yourself away from engaging in it. Group norms are often internally policed by unquestioned thoughts that start with “I should or must” do or think this or that. If you had contrary thoughts in the past that turned out to be wrong, you might overgeneralize by thinking that all the thoughts related to the earlier ones are always going to be wrong as well.

Logical fallacies can also be used to either explain away or justify ideas that might contradict group norms or beliefs. For instance, post hoc reasoning assumes wrongly that if event A is quickly followed by event B, then it is probably true that A caused B. Therefore, you opt to avoid A in order to avoid B. An example: "Looking at pornography will lead to sex addiction." This is fallacious because the pairing is often due to another variable common to both A and B - in this case the internal conflict over one's sexuality - or because the pairing is just a coincidence.

Group Mythology. In order to operate as an integrated unit, groups with a common purpose also have mechanisms that they use to enforce conformity of thought within their numbers. Members employ various strategies to invalidate any competing ideas with which they might be challenged. Once again, group cohesion has its advantages; it often maximizes the group’s chances of success, but these mechanisms can also backfire severely and lead to failure.

Family therapists have studied groupthink phenomena within families, but similar ones are used by other groups as well. An individual's family often acts as if they all share a set of beliefs, and they all seem to live by them almost compulsively. While some of these beliefs are applied only to certain individuals, others apply to the whole group. The latter ideas are referred to as family myths. They justify and support a set of rules which dictate how each family member should behave and why, and what family roles each must fully and habitually play. This allows the family to function in a predictable way (family homeostasis).  

The myths function as a belief system which the family uses, often defensively, to explain or justify its behavior and beliefs. They are sometimes verbalized explicitly, but can also be expressed implicitly. Sometimes they take the form of oft-verbalized adages or slogans. One good example of this was seen in a family that strongly believed in fatalism—the idea that people are powerless to change their world so one should make the best of that which already exists. They all spouted three different proverbs on numerous occasions that expressed and reinforced within the group a warning about what happens to anyone who tries to take charge of their lives: "The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill;" "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know;" and "You've made your bed so now you have to lie in it." 

Within-group Mechanisms for Enforcing Groupthink: Disqualification and Invalidation.
Individuals can, when necessary, use two related mechanisms to obfuscate their own real beliefs to themselves or others. This is done so that if later said beliefs are rejected, the persons can deny they had meant what they had in fact said. These tactics are called disqualification and invalidation. Disqualification is a strategy used to make one’s own position on an issue ambiguous. When someone does this, other members of the group cannot say for certain what it is that the person actually believes. When other people ask for clarification, they are basically told that they are misperceiving in some way the person they are asking. Doing this to them is an example of invalidation. 

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