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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Groupthink in American Politics

What is Groupthink

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9). Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making
above quoted from http://www.psysr.org

OK, so you're probably expecting some easy joke about watching FOX NEWS. But it's no joke, and it isn't just for FOX watchers or Limbaugh listeners. It applies just as much to those Madden fanatics or other left-leaning commentators. The point is we are all boxing ourselves in by limiting our awareness. And we often are not even aware of our self-imposed limits. Someone recently told me that they only watch one hour or so of FOX. He also reads The Wall Street Journal. I mentioned that the two corporations are actually just one, but I don't think I got through.

We humans love to feel that we belong to groups that think like us. At church we like to think that our fellow church-goers vote like us, dislike the same things, like the same things, and feel disgusted at the same politicians. When we find someone who stands out, who might have a different viewpoint, they are then an outlier, someone so different that it causes one to pause and reflect on how that could even be. Don't we watch the same news? Read the same papers? Go to the same church?

The more we close ourselves off from diverse opinions the more fanatical our opinions become. Those watching FOX become more and more certain of the gifts that Reagan has left us, without ever hearing or debating those less certain problems (Remember Guatemala? Remember Iran? Remember all those tax increases?).

Watching Maddow I can easily forget the corruptions of certain unions in the past, such as the Teamsters with their inglorious mixing with the mafia. The problems of teacher unions are glossed over; the America of the Left is just as controllable as that of the Right.

Irving Janis documented the following symptoms of Groupthink:

Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

Can you recognize modern America here? The "city on a hill" optimism of Reagan; the warnings of Climate Change going unheeded (why bother assuming that the science is good; it'll probably be fine); the belief in the inherent goodness of the American people (despite the Jim Crow South, Vietnam, Iraq, the associative guilt of genocide in Central America, discrimination, murder, theft of outrageous proportions on Wall St, etc); and we can easily find example after example of liberals calling conservatives "idiots," "numskulls," and the like (and the conservatives calling liberals "socialists," "commies," etc.), stereotyping with one broad brush. Have you ever attended a meeting where someone says something that is just assumed to be held by all attending? You feel immediately the pressure to agree or become the outlier. That is when you have to decide to say something and risk banishment or be silent and risk losing an opportunity to educate or influence.

Our "self-appointed 'mindguards'" are routinely now pastors, or professors, or managers. These people have a high moral responsibility to consider all the facts of a topic before selecting their own opinions. As mindguards they will influence all those around them, and mindguards will have their own leaders selecting information for them, influencing their thoughts in turn. More often they are the talking heads of TV. We love to turn on our favorite "news" channel, suppressing for the moment that what we seek is not news, but our echo chamber of choice. This is the appointed task that Maddow is given, and O'Reilly and Hannity and Beck. We ask of them to keep the discussion within the boundaries we are used to. We do not like to be given new information or information from a different vantage point.

As Americans board up the windows of their minds and concentrate inwards on only what they know--or think they know--they limit the learning necessary to evolve into a more discerning taste, a higher thought process, and they forget consensus and compromise.

The key for this country is for people to learn what the other, the outlier, knows; find out what they think and do not be quick to judge. "Judge not, lest thou be judged," is a key verse for politics as well as religion, at least a politics that seeks consensus. This means for those watching FOX to turn to a different channel, find out what the liberals think. And the liberals, though not likely to watch FOX, would do well to at least read some of the more educated journals such as National Review, or First Things (a fine Catholic journal). Another good source of news and commentary that seeks a middle ground is the Wilson Quarterly. Those used to watching TV will find the immersion into articles of depth a welcoming experience.

Or you could just walk over to your politically naive neighbor and start a discussion--and discussions aren't arguments. Just remember to turn off the TV.

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